Pansies are a perfect pick

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Feature Article - posted Thu., Mar. 8, 2012
- Contributed Photo

Few things can brighten one’s day like the sight of cheerful, sweet-scented pansy blossoms. Pansies come in just about every color imaginable, even true blue and near black. All sorts of attractive and unique color combinations can be found – some soft and subtle, others brassy and bold.

Pansies belong to the Violaceae family along with violas and violets. They are relatively new additions to the ancient violet clan. Records show one species of violet, Viola odorata, in cultivation more than 2,000 years ago. Violets are native to Asia, North Africa and Europe, but over the years, they have naturalized throughout the world’s temperate zones.

Violets have been associated with love since the times of the ancient Greeks. They were a love token between Napoleon Bonaparte and Josephine. Elizabethans named them “heartsease,” and for them, violets became a symbol of innocent, unspoiled love.

The tricolor violet, (V. tricolor) also called Johnny-Jump-Up, is an ancestor of today’s glorious pansies. Johnny-Jump-Up, by the way, has at least 200 common names and probably holds the record for the longest folk name, “Meet-Her-In-The-Entry-Kiss-Her-In-The-Buttery”! Flowers are small but come in varying shades of purple, yellow, white, blue and cream. Many have dark lines on their faces, referred to as “honey guides.”

The development of the pansies is credited to a Mr. Thompson, the gardener of a British naval officer. He crossed Johnny-Jump-Ups with yellow V. lutea and V. altaica, which hailed from Crimea and Turkey. Around 1810, Mr. Thompson noticed the first “blotched” pansy. He continued breeding his “fancy” pansies and in 1835 introduced “Beauty of Ivor,” the first Show Pansy. These flowers became a bit hit in Europe, and by 1841 there were 400 named varieties of Show Pansy. A pansy show was even held by the Hammersmith Heart’s-Ease Society!

Belgium and French breeders also played an active role in pansy breeding. Flowers were very beautiful but large and top-heavy. Eventually, they were bred to be more suitable as bedding plants, and we today should be thankful for that emphasis.

The pansies we know are all hybrids and cultivars, and generally classified as V. x wittrockiana. The plants are short-lived perennials, but since they are not reliably hardy in much of New England, we grow them as annuals.

Pansies are cool-season plants, performing best in spring and fall, and often languishing during the hot summer months. Some of the newer hybrids are more heat-tolerant and will continue blooming throughout most of the summer.

For a really good show, grow plants in a rich soil fortified with organic matter and kept reasonably moist. Pansies like the pH to be close to neutral (7.0). If the spent flowers are promptly removed, leggy growth trimmed back and enough nutrients supplied, pansies will delight you with a gorgeous show and fresh, delicate scent from April to Thanksgiving. For questions about pansies or other home and garden information, feel free to contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 860-486-6271, visit the website, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Office.

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