(Editor's Note: this article was originally published on March 31, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previosly published articles may nto be able to respond to your questions.)
A fashionable Victorian flower, pansies were supposed to be the flowers of lovers. Legend has it that pansies could transfer the thoughts of sweethearts without spoken words. The word "pansy" is reported to be derived from the French, "pensee," which translates as "thought." When near pansies, it was believed that one could hear their lover's thoughts. They were a popular ingredient in "love potions", and have been written about by Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and many others.
Pansies are a popular cool weather flower. Here in the South, their cheery blooms make us smile through the dreary gray days of winter. A splash of color in an otherwise monotone landscape. Further north, they are the first transplants to make it to the garden centers. They are joyfully carried home by gardeners who are longing for a living spot of green, gold, and purple to herald the coming of Spring.
Technically a perennial plant, pansies are best used as an annual or a biennial. They are members of the large Viola family and their proper name is Viola x wittrockiana. Their first season tends to be their best, and they deteriorate in the heat of summer. Plan for using them in the cooler seasons. Most gardeners treat them as a half hardy annual, and replace them with more heat tolerant plants as the summer warms.
In the southern states, pansies are planted in September and October to give us color throughout the winter. Even in the Upper South, here in west Kentucky, pansies are planted. Freezes shut them down for a short period of time, but as soon as temperatures moderate, they spring back and bloom their heads off. They are quite popular across the Mid-south, and bloom continuously in areas such as Alabama and Georgia. Our cool, damp winters are perfect for these plants. When our blast furnace summers arrive, they shrink and fade away. Further north, they make an excellent mainstay to garden plantings. They are perfect for rock gardens, and are quite content in containers also.
Growing pansies from seed is not as simple as scattering a few in a pot of soil and waiting. The seeds germinate best in soil temperatures between 60 and 65 F. This means that the customary use of a heat mat is not necessary. They also require total darkness for germination. After sowing the seeds, sprinkle about 1/8" of seed starting mix over them, and cover the flats with a board or cloth. Check on the progress frequently. Germination can take between 10 and 20 days. Move the seedlings to a cool, bright area as soon as they emerge, taking care to keep the seedlings moist. They can be transplanted as soon as they have two sets of true leaves.
Pansies like sunny moist conditions. They bloom best when there is ample water, but do not tolerate wet feet. They are also heavy feeders, and a fertilizer formulated for blooming flowers should be applied every two or three weeks. Dead-heading your pansies will promote more blooms for a longer period of time. Few pests bother pansies, slugs are the worst. Use a recommended slug bait, or saucers full of beer to eliminate them. Aphids also like pansies, and an insecticidal soap will eliminate them.
Just be sure not to use pesticides if you are planning to use your pansies in the kitchen. Yes, the colorful blooms are quite attractive, and are also edible. They make a pretty garnish for salads, and blossoms frozen in ice cubes are quite nice for a luncheon. With a little imagination, pansy blossoms can be used in a number of ways in the kitchen. They make a beautiful addition to any Spring meal, even if only as a decoration.
When choosing pansy transplants at the garden center, pick plants that are just starting to show buds or blooms. Flats full of pretty flowers are usually the gardener's first instinct, but these plants are stressed in their small cell packs trying to produce blossoms. As hard as it is to wait, choosing the smaller, less colorful plants will pay dividends in the long run. The new transplants will be able to produce a better root system before having to support a great number of flowers. They will reward you with a bigger and better show in a few weeks.
Pansies are a lovely little flower with an interesting history. They have charmed people with their face-like markings, and their resilient determination to bloom in many conditions. The pansy is an excellent choice for cool weather blooms, and will happily reward you with color when many plants cannot. Spring is here! It's time for pansies!