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10 Neat Things About Pansies
by Shauna Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

March 27, 2011

1. Pansies for thought. The origin of the word pansy is reputed to be the French word pens ée , meaning thought. The idea is that the face of the flower, particularly when it nods in the heat, looks like a person in thought. The name dates back to the 15th century and was given to wild violas, which are smaller than the ones we call pansies today; the modern hybrid is Viola x wittrockiana. Fifteenth-century pansies were more like Johnny jump-ups.

2. Shakespeare's pansies. Ophelia, the doomed young lady in Hamlet, listing the qualities of flowers she hands out when she goes mad, declares: "There's pansies, that's for thoughts." Pansies, going by the name heart's ease, were used in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as a love potion. It is often repeated that Elizabethans believed a tincture of pansies deposited on the eyes of someone sleeping would cause them to fall in love with the first thing they saw upon waking. Personally, I think that was invented by Shakespeare, though it's easier to prove that something happened than prove it didn't. I have no definitive evidence.

3. Culpeper's pansies. There is evidence for what medicinal properties pansies were believed to possess from The Complete Herbal (1653) by the apothecary and surgeon Nicolas Culpepper. His prescribed use for pansy was for venereal diseases. He also noted that: "the spirit of it is excellently good for the convulsions in children, as also for the falling sickness, and a gallant remedy for the inflammation of the lungs and breasts, pleurisy, scabs, itch, &c."

4. Victorian pansies. The relationship between thought and pansies persisted into Victorian floriography, sometimes called the language of flowers. A pansy signified "I am thinking of you". The association of pansies with homosexuals (as in calling a gay man a pansy) did not arise until later; its first recorded use is in 1929. The floriographic symbol for homosexuality was grass. A green-tinted carnation in the lapel was also a signal of homosexuality made popular by Oscar Wilde.

5. Species pansies. The flowers that go by the name pansy today are all hybrids; the closest thing to the original species would have to be Viola tricolour, the wild Johnny jump-up. An estate gardener in Buckinghamshire, England named William Thompson, worked on developing a round-petalled viola for several years by crossing various violas with V. tricolour. He brought his first cultivars to market in 1839. The gardening world was enthralled.

6. Pansies want to be cool. Pansies don't like heat. They're happiest in spring and, if you haven't killed them or ripped them out when they get leggy and scraggly through the dog days of summer, they're happy again in the fall. It's a good idea to plant them in the filtered light of a tree, ensuring they get sufficient water particularly when it gets hot. Keep them deadheaded while they're blooming and shear them back if they get unruly in summer.

7. Biennials. Viola tricolour is a true biennial: it produces greenery in its first year and produces flowers and sets seed in its second year. Modern pansies are kind of biennial, but, owing to hybridizing selection, many of them will flower in their first year, some as soon as nine weeks after sowing. Others, in mild enough areas, will behave as short-lived perennials. Nonetheless, most of us grow them as annuals because they look best when they're fresh and they won't overwinter below Zone 4 anyway. I think another reason is because they're always the first thing on sale at the garden centers, and who among us can resist buying a flat as soon as the snow melts?

8. Cold-hardy pansies. About 10 years ago, Canadian grower Fernlea developed a series called Icicle Pansies. These are sold in the late summer and early fall as bedding plants. You plant them and they bloom right up until the hard frosts; they'll even bloom through light dustings of snow. Then in spring, they bloom again. In fact, they'll bloom during a mild spell in winter and survive when the temperature plummets again.

9. Heat-tolerant pansies. Those same pansy-geniuses at Fernlea have now developed a pansy series called Hot Chilly. They won't last the whole summer through, but Fernlea claims they'll look good through more heat than other pansies. I'll be giving them a whirl.

10. Good enough to eat. Pansy blooms are edible. They make a salad positively gorgeous, they're simply charming frozen in ice cubes and they add a special flair used as garnishes. With all flowers used for culinary purposes, you should grow your own from seed or wait a full season to harvest blooms from a nursery-grown plant unless you have complete assurance that they've been grown without sprays.

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