Sometimes legends get a little twisted by time, and when they get down to us they take on a whole new meaning. It took a lot of gathering of wild pansy before we had enough of the tiny plants to make a decent herbal tea. It took even longer since I was determined to sleep with one on each eyelid every single night of my life. Aunt Bett had told me that if I slept with pansies covering my eyes, the first person I saw upon awakening would be my true love. I slept with many wild pansies before I determined that I must be doing something wrong. The only things I saw when I woke were Pepper dog, or possibly my little brother. I didn't think either of them counted as a true love.
Viola tricolor, also known as wild pansy, grows in fields, wastelands, and forest edges. The flowers were quite prolific in the mountains, and covered yards and hillsides in abundance. They were introduced from Europe and have since escaped gardens across temperate North America. Wild pansies are considered annuals, growing to more than 15 inches tall, and produce so many seeds that sprout so readily they appear to be perennial. The pansy flowers from May through September in half inch display patterns of purple, white and yellow. It is a progenitor of the cultivated pansy.
In traditional flower language, pansy's three colors stand for memories, loving thoughts, and souvenirs, all of which ease the hearts of separated lovers. Pansy is also called heartsease, and its juice once served as an ingredient in love potions. (Take note of that little fact, because I think it was the beginning of the twisted belief that somehow took over my life the summer I slept with pansies covering my eyes.)
The flowers or the whole flowering plant, either fresh or dried, yield a bitter tea that was employed to remedy a wide variety of ills. Early in the 16th century, it was believed that pansy tea was effective for infantile convulsions, chest and lung inflammations, and as a surface remedy for scabs, itching, and skin ulcers. This external use caused pansy to be listed for a time in the U.S. Pharmacopeia, and has continued in herbal medicine. There is no scientific evidence regarding the validity of any claims made for pansy's healing properties. And sad but true, there is no evidence that pansy covered eyelids will lead you to the face of your true love.
At the time, surrounded as I was by mountain legends and lore, I believed whatever my grownups told me. Every night I went to bed with pansies covering my eyelids, and every morning I woke up looking forward to seeing the face of my true love. When no one appeared when I opened my eyes, I wondered what I might be doing wrong, so I tried various things. Scotch tape held the flowers on for a little while, but I don't think I was brave enough to use regular household glue. There was a way to make a paste of flour and water, but that was not a success either because once I got that mixture on one eyelid, I couldn't see to get it on the other and it made a mess all over my face and my bed. Most of the time in desperation I resorted to my own spit. Now that did lead to a major discovery. Those tiny flowers make an excellent dye, and I woke up several mornings to what looked like bruised eyelids.
Along with my other high school studies, I was introduced to Shakespeare. With a tiny bit of Shakespeare running rampant through my mind I came across this: "There's pansies, that's for thoughts," says Ophelia, and then there is this: "The juice of the heartsease now on sleeping eyelids laid, Will make man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees," says Oberon in Midsummer Nights Dream. My problem was solved, but I wondered how Aunt Bett knew a thing about Shakespeare. I remember asking her, "Aunt Bett, did you study Shakespeare when you were growing up?"
"Well, no, child, I can't rightly say I did. I only studied on what my ma and her ma taught me, and that was mostly about plants."
And so, did the legend come before Shakespeare, or did Shakespeare start the legend? That was the question, but not the problem. The problem was I never did wake up to see my true love's face.
All photos are from Plant Files, with thanks to these photographers: Gabrielle, Gerris2, Xenomorf, and Trillian15.