Sometime you don’t know that you don’t know. I have always loved what I believe to be violas, to my mind miniature pansies. It is not so simple. Whatever they are, they belong the genus Viola of the plant family Violaceae. It seems that in the world of everyday English the names pansy, violet and viola are often used interchangeably. What appears to be accepted is that pansies have four petals pointing upward and only one down, while violets have two petals pointing upward and three petals pointing down. What I have been growing all these years is a pansy called Viola wittrockiana, a hybrid of Viola tricolor, a European and western Asian wildflower otherwise known as heartsease.
The pansy was grown in Ancient Greece and used medicinally. At the end of the 16th century, the botanist John Gerard described it as being ‘good … for such as are sick of ague, especially children and infants, whose convulsions and fits of the falling sickness it is thought to cure. It is commended against inflammation of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.’(1)
It wasn’t until the 19th century that gardeners began crossbreeding the small-flowered heartsease (Viola tricolor) with other species. James, Lord Gambier ‘under the advice and guidance of his gardener’(2) William Thompson developed the hybrid Viola wittrockiana, named for the Swedish botanist Veit Brecher Wittrock who wrote a history of the cultivation of the pansy.
Pansies are perennials but most people treat them as annuals, particularly those sorts of diligent gardeners who prepare seasonal displays. They last much longer under the (lack of) care of benignly neglectful gardeners. They grow slowly to about 20cm high and up to 10cm across. Mine never reach anything like that, most usually they are pretty, delicate looking things about 8 cm high with blooms 2 cm across, despite what the label on the punnet says. Their blooms can be in a wide range of colours—white, yellow, orange, mauve, blue, purple and almost black. The colours can be solid or two or three-coloured. Some plants have blotches particularly on the lower petals giving them the appearance of a bearded face. These blotches are believed to help guide pollinating insects. Each petal is covered with tiny hairs that get longer towards the centre of the flower. These hairs give pansies their velvety touch. The centre of the flower is yellow where five pollen dusted stamen surround the stigma. The leaves are a medium green, oval and notched. Overall each plant is quite compact.
Pansies can be grown either in the garden or in pots or hanging baskets. They are often used as borders. I prefer to to plant them in clumps as I think it concentrates their colour. Pansies do like the sun but a bit of shade is good in the hotter months. They like a splash of liquid fertilizer (when I remember). They flower longer if the spent blooms are regularly removed.
Apparently, the flowers are edible and can be used to garnish salads or crystallized with sugar and used to decorate cakes. I have never eaten them—it doesn’t seem quite right to eat what you admire.
(1) The Herball or Generall Histories of Plantes (1597) p.705
(2) Wikipedia – Pansy Reading the Historical background section of the entry, I wonder whether the the gardeners were the real innovators rather than the aristocrats working under their ‘advice and guidance’.