Is there a more cheerful flower than the garden pansy? With their big bold faces, brilliant colors ranging from bright yellow to deep purple with new varieties that even include splashes of pink, these flowers are a favorite in most cool-season gardens.
Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) are part of the Viola genus. They are hybrids of Viola tricolor (commonly known as Johnny-Jump-Ups, Heartsease, or just Violas), crossed with other Viola species like V. lutea and V. altaica. Pansies are differentiated from violas by their larger multi-colored flowers, though they are closely related.
The garden pansy beloved today has only been around for about 200 years. In the early 1800s, Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet of Surrey, England, began gathering different varieties of wild Heartsease and bringing them back to her family’s estate, where she worked with the gardener to begin cross-breeding them to create a wide variety of colors. At the same time (and not far away), James Gambier was doing much the same thing with his own gardener. Over time, hybridizing violas become popular, leading eventually to the familiar large-flowered blotch-faced garden pansy we know and love today.
Pansies are a cool season plant, usually treated as annual, and some varieties re-seed readily. They are usually planted in the spring in northern zones, and in fall and winter in warmer areas. Pansies like the cold, and can actually handle light freezes and even some snow; they dislike hot, muggy weather and will quickly rot when the heat of a southern summer sets in. They love full sun but can take some shade, and require regular water to flower their best.
Garden pansies are a low-growing plants, perfect for borders. I also love pansies in containers, where you can get up close and appreciate their subtle spring-like scent and cheery flower faces. Mix them with other cool season flowers, like sweet alyssum, snapdragons, and their close relatives, violas, or simply plant a big bed of a variety of colors and patterns. All the pansies shown here were available for sale at my local nursery this year, and should be readily available in your area when the right growing season arrives.