Pansies are annual garden flowers (blooms for only one year, then dies) that are usually the first you find for sale in stores in spring. Pansies have been around for many years and are popular, being easy to grow and so colorful during the cooler days of spring and fall.
In cool northern climates, pansies will bloom well into summer when temperatures turn hot. In warm southern climates they’re often planted again in fall, lasting into and even through the winter. Keeping flowers picked off after bloom (if you have just a few in containers) will keep them more tidy and promote more blooms. If you’re lucky, they’ll self-sow seeds, coming back in future years.
Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) are hybrids of several species, the most common being the viola known as “Heartsease” (Viola tricolor). While the terms viola and pansy are often used interchangeably, there actually is a difference. Flowers of violas are usually smaller, those of pansies larger. The real difference, though, is that pansies have four petals pointing upward and one pointing downward; violas or violets have three petals pointing upward and two downward.
Pansy flowers usually have blotches or markings, making them resemble a face. This was first discovered on a sport (mutation) in the late 1830s, at the time that pansies were first becoming popular in Europe and England, with hundreds of varieties. Originally, pansies began as wildflowers in Europe and western Asia.
Pansies continue to be bred, with colors ranging from white to almost black, and most any color and combination in between. There are ones with large flowers such as the Majestic Giant series (3 to 4 inches across), medium such as the Crown and Imperial series (2 to 3 inches), and multiflora such as the Maxim series and the orange Padparadja (one to 2 inches). Series are simply groups of cultivars (cultivated varieties) that differ in color but share other traits such as flower shape, size, and hardiness.
Several pansies have been All-America Selections winners such as Majestic Giant White Face in 1966, Imperial Blue in 1975, and both Maxim Marina and Padparadja in 1991. Some pansies have a pleasant scent—generally yellow and blue ones—the scent most noticed in early morning and at dusk.
There even is a new category of trailing pansies, which spread over two feet wide. WonderFall and Cool Wave are a couple of these to look for in stores. They are best in hanging baskets, as groundcovers, or spilling over edges of large containers.
If you want to start pansies from seeds, plan on plenty of time—14 to 16 weeks before planting outside in early spring. This means you’ll need to start them in late January or early February indoors, under grow lights or on a sunny windowsill. It will take several weeks for the tiny seeds to germinate and grow a couple sets of true leaves, at which time you can start giving them a dilute fertilizer. From sowing onward, make sure to keep the soil moist. A well-drained seed-sowing mix should be used for sowing and growing on, not soil.
If you don’t want the challenge or have the time to start your own pansies, you can buy them in spring ready to plant in the garden or pots. Use a good potting mix for containers such as windowboxes, adding some slow release or organic fertilizer (according to your choice), at the labeled rates. Use such fertilizer too in the garden, to which you’ve added an inch or two of compost. Keep plants watered, especially after planting, but avoid overhead watering—water the soil instead to prevent leaf and flower diseases. Roots may rot if soils are waterlogged and too wet.
There are few pests that bother pansies, and even aphids and spider mites that may get on them usually do little harm. If you find slugs eating your pansies, there are many remedies to try including saucers of beer (slugs are attracted to them, then drown), copper strips, egg shells, even coffee grounds sprinkled among plants. Put a roll of moist newspaper in the garden which slugs may hide in during the day (they tend to feed at night), then just remove the paper and slugs.
Plant pansies six to ten inches apart. Even the largest stay under one foot high and wide. Full sun is fine in cool, northern climate. Morning sun is best in warmer climates.
Other than just enjoying pansies for their cheery spring color in containers, along walks and edges, or massed in borders, you can eat the flowers in salads and dessert. Their flavor is slightly minty. Or, pick them to dry and use in potpourri. In the Language of Flowers, popular in Victorian times, pansies represented the thoughts of lovers. The word pansy comes from the French word “pensee” meaning thought or remembrance. During the 19th century they were used for “love potions”. Others have used the flowers as a natural dye.
Related to pansies, but with much smaller flowers, are Johnny Jump-Ups. Although traditionally in purple, lavender and yellow, you can find these with other colors such as white, wine red, and pastels. They’re great to interplant with spring bulbs, and usually come back each year from self-sowing.
For its ease of growth and color, pansy was named by the National Garden Bureau as the annual Flower of the Year for 2017. You can learn more about this and other flowers of the year on their website (ngb.org).
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont