Words and photograph courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.
Although pansies are friendly-faced flower, until the 19th century most people considered them a weed. Happily some gardeners saw beauty in those wildflowers of Europe and western Asia, and hybridization gave rise to the cool-season flowers many of us treasure today.
For example, Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet, daughter of the Earl of Tankerville, and her gardener crossbred a wide variety of Viola tricolor, also known as heartsease, or Johnny-jump-up, and showcased their resulting pansies to the horticultural world in 1813. Further experiments around the same time eventually grew the class to over 400 garden pansy varieties. In the late 1830s, the classic pansy “face” was discovered in a chance sport that showed a broad, dark blotch on its petals. It was released to the public by James, Lord Gambier with the name ‘Medora’. Further hybridization of V. tricolor, V. lutea and a blue-flowered species of Russian origin, V. altacia, led to plants selected for more unusual colors, different color combinations and a larger flower size.
Today, modern pansies are classified by the American Violet Society as having large flowers with two slightly overlapping upper petals, two side petals and a single bottom petal with a slight beard in its center. The garden pansy comes in a rainbow of colors, from crisp white to almost black and almost all colors in between. They’re considered annual bedding plants for decoration during the cooler seasons. They also make a great addition to the spring or fall vegetable garden; they are edible and they pair well with lettuces. They can also be candied and used to decorate sweets or other dishes.
Most pansies fall into a few categories: Large (three- to four-inch flowers), Medium (two- to three-inch flowers), Multiflora (one to two inches) and a newer category, Trailing, which offers plants for hanging baskets or use as ground cover. Large-flowered pansy series include Majestic Giant, Delta and Matrix. Medium-sized garden pansy series include Crown and Imperial. Multiflora pansy series Maxim and Padparadja won All-America Selections awards in the early 1990s. The new Trailing pansies include WonderFall and Cool Wave. These plants spread over two feet wide and they can overwinter in many regions.
Garden pansy propagation and care
Most garden centers offer pansies in packs, hanging baskets or individual pots, but many gardeners still start their own from seed, which allows many more options of color, size, fragrance and habit. Pansy seeds can be started indoors in a soilless mixture to help prevent seedling diseases. The seed is planted an eighth of an inch deep. Pansies prefer darkness for germination. The growing medium’s temperature should be between 60 and 65°F and the air between 70 and 75°F. Germination occurs in 10 to 20 days, after which the container should be moved to a brightly lit but cool space to continue to grow. Separate seedlings into larger containers after two sets of leaves appear, and begin to feed them with diluted plant food.
In the garden, transplants or purchased plants should be spaced six to ten inches apart in well-drained fertile soil. The best location is an area that receives morning sun. Adding granular or time-release nutrition to the soil is encouraged, especially for trailing pansies, as this increases their vigor and number of blooms. Offer plenty of water at planting and during their adjustment period to help establish roots and minimize stress. Mulching can help retain moisture and reduce any weeds that may compete with your plants. Pansies planted in the spring will enjoy the warm days and cool nights of the season. Most will begin to diminish or cease flowering as nighttime temperatures begin to rise in the summer. In the North, fall-planted pansies will enjoy a short but colorful season of blooms and in many cases they will pop up again the following spring. Southern gardeners often use pansies as their winter color and enjoy them all season long.
The National Garden Bureau recognizes and thanks PanAmerican Seed as author of this article. It is provided as an educational service of the NGB. For fact sheets on a wide range of garden plants, visit ngb.org.