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Pansy Pride: Growing Viola × Wittrockiana From Seed

Say the word "pansy," and watch people freak out:

  • Socially sensitive: Is it still a derogatory word if it's used in reference to ornamental plants?
  • Piously peculiar: Can I grow them next to my bishop's flowers without causing a scandal?
  • Flat-out uninformed: Will they somehow cause immoral behavior among my bachelor's buttons?
  • Perfectly reasonable: If I plant them with my gayfeathers, will the neighbors complain about all night dance parties?

Relax, everyone; they're just flowers, doing their own thing.

"Pansy" was once a term used by a subculture of speakeasy entertainers back in the 1930s, drawn from the turn-of-the-century phrase, "to get pansied up" or to put on one’s most dashing, dandy menswear. The word "pansy" became the ribbon at the midpoint of an etymological tug-of-war rope, with LGBTQ citizens at one end, and homophobic folk at the other. And sometimes, the biggest jerks cause the opposing team to get pulled through the mud. The ill-will behind the term overrode its playful origins.

However "pansy" is interpreted today, the original slang was inspired by the ornamental plant's wide range of brilliant (dare we say, "fabulous!") colors. Maybe it's also a nod to the plant's resilience; it's a heck of a lot tougher than it looks and it can withstand a little frostiness now and again. We like to think that the pansy's signature, face-like spots allow them to stare down anybody who'd dare to question their rightful place in the garden.

Pansies Were Made That Way

There are as many as 250 cultivars of Viola x wittrockiana. Modern pansies are hybrids of other European relatives in the Violaceae family, including the tall and leggy heartsease (Viola tricolor). While the Greeks were exploring V. tricolor's medicinal and aesthetic value as far back as the 4th century BC, it wasn't until 1839 when William Thompson, gardener to English nobleman Lord Cambier, developed the cultivar we know and love today. But boy did it take off; according to Texas A&M, in a few decades, it became a short-list favorite of green thumbs around the world...including the United States where, in 1888, one seed catalog claimed it sold more than 100,000 pansy seed packets a year.

Take it from us: That's a big freaking deal.

More Name Shenanigans!

The genus name Viola is from the Greek term for "sweet-smelling flowers," and "pansy" evolved in several stages from the French name for the flower, pensée, which means "thoughts." Some connect the name to the contemplative expression on the flowers' face-like spots. It's no surprise that in the language of flowers, a gift of pansies means, "I'm thinking of you, possibly in a stalky, plotting kind of way."

Pansies share some colloquial names with heartsease, including...Oh boy. Here we go:

  • Three-faces-under-a-hood (For when it takes more than one gardener to fix that &*@& riding mower)
  • Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me (We don't know Jack, so...no.)
  • Love-in-idleness (As used by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream)
  • Live-in-idleness (If you imagine that smug face belonging to your teenager)
  • Pink-eyed John (Call a doctor, dude...or get some chamomile drops up in there)
  • Bouncing Bet (Looks like that land mine was a little too sensitive)
  • Meet-me-in-the-entry (!!!)
  • Cuddle me (If you insist!)
  • Kiss-her-in-the-buttery (Seriously? Should we have put NSFW in the headline?)
  • Godfathers/Godmothers/Stepmothers (Just not going there. Sorry.)

OK, that was fun. Any of us who were subjected to the schoolyard epithet "pansy" might now feel they dodged a bullet. Or not. Yours Truly, for example, got "cuddle me" on a regular basis, and not just from the hot janitor.

More Than Just a Pretty Face: Pansies in the Kitchen and Apothecary Cabinet

Pansy flowers are edible! The petals alone have a mild, grassy flavor, but if you eat the entire flower head, you might get a bit of a wintergreen zing. Experiment with candying recipes, or use them in salads, as a garnish, or to decorate desserts. Are you making a batch of fresh goat cheese? Roll that chevre in fresh pensée petals for a classic French presentation.

We've frozen them in ice cube trays with mint leaves for summer beverages, and we've heard that if they're boiled down to syrup, they make a great flavoring for sorbets, ice cream, or vodka infusions. In Europe, some beekeepers use pansy syrup to flavor their honey.

Pansy has a long history in natural medicine. Most of the anecdotal information we found on the pansy's healing properties include all types of Viola, and as always, we suggest that you cross-reference anything you read here (or anywhere else, for that matter) about medicinal herbs. Pioneering herbalist Maud Grieve (1858-1941) wrote that heartsease's seeds, foliage, and flowers served to treat the following:

  • Epilepsy
  • Heart dysfunction
  • Asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory inflammations
  • Eczema and similar skin conditions
  • Edema

Pansies are mucilage-rich, which may be one of the reasons they're used to treat internal and external wounds and irritation, and also to relieve constipation. Most sources suggest harvesting the plants at the peak of their vitality. Pull up and suspend, inverted, the entire plants and hang them to dry in a well-ventilated room, or refrigerate the dry petals and leaves for a few days. Pansies do wilt quickly, so try to use them as soon as possible after harvesting.

Pansies in the Garden

Their sweetly-fragrant flowers have five sepals and five irregular rounded petals; two larger, overlapping petals are above and behind three smaller petals. In the spotted species, it's these three lower petals that bear the signature "faces." The overall size of a pansy flower depends on its variety and can be as small as an inch across, or as wide as four inches.

The pansy's foliage is a medium-to-dark matte green, often with a slightly rumpled surface. The ovate or heart-shaped leaves, which are usually about 1.5 inches long, are gently serrated and the stalks are somewhat woody.

Pansy plants are typically six to eight inches tall, with an eight to 12-inch spread. They grow in an upright, mounding fashion, and are best plotted out in clusters of a half dozen or so plants.

Picking a spot for your pansies

Pansies are grown as an annual in all zones, but they're classified as a cool-season herbaceous perennial in USDA zones 6 through 10. In the warmest climates, they're better treated as a cool season plant since pansies don't tolerate high temperatures. If they're grown as biennials—direct-sown in early fall and mulched through the winter—they'll bloom earlier in the spring.

Choose a spot in full sun or part shade where they'll get consistent moisture. They need rich, loose, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.4. A little peat moss incorporated into their beds will provide a touch of acidity. If you treat your pansies with respect, they'll bloom for you all season long, or even in winter if you live in a snowbird zone.

Plant them where you'll be able to appreciate them close-up, and where you can get a whiff of their sweet aroma (best in early morning and evening). They're most famously grown in window boxes, hanging baskets, containers, borders, and edgings.

Drama-free and low-maintenance plants

Pansies aren't particularly prone to pests and diseases, though foliage fungus might be an issue. Protect young plants from snails and slugs, and watch out for aphids. They're somewhat deer-resistant, but ungulates and rabbits will eat them if there's nothing better on the menu.

Shearing back heat-dormant pansies will encourage new growth, and deadheading will extend the bloom period. While pansies appreciate monthly fertilizing, too much nitrogen will cause them to become straggly.

Established pansies can tolerate a light frost better than most ornamentals, but if you know you've got a cold snap coming on, a floating cover couldn't hurt.

Growing Pansies from Seed

While we typically recommend using peat pots or CowPots for indoor starts, pansies transplant fairly well from nursery trays or plastic pots. They're often used in large-scale landscape designs at theme parks and in upscale gated communities (is there a difference?) due to their ease of cultivation and transplanting, and of course due to their cheerful beauty and enormous color selection. Because they're cool-season plants, large facilities in moderate climates often use greenhouses to grow pansies year-round.

While you can direct-sow your pansy seeds, they're quite small and can be "drilled" into the topsoil by heavy rains or foot traffic. When growing pansies from seed, you'll want to plant extra seeds in each location to make sure you get the right coverage.

Pansy seeds can be slow to germinate. It's not unusual for them to take as long as three months to...well, come out, but with the right conditions to encourage them, you can expect seedlings to emerge in 7 to 21 days.

  • Seed Treatment: None required.
  • When to Plant Outdoors: Plant your pansy seeds once the soil temperature reaches a consistent 60°F to 70°F. Frost will kill seedlings.
  • When to Plant Indoors: Start seeds in biodegradable pots 8 to 12 weeks prior to your intended transplant date.
  • Seed Depth: Cover with 1/8" of soil. Pansy seeds require darkness to germinate, and many growers cover their pots or beds with black plastic until the seedlings emerge.
  • Seed Spacing: Plant, transplant, or thin six to eight inches apart.

Be sure to keep the seedbeds or seed containers evenly moist, using either a fine mist setting on your hose, spray emitters on your irrigation, or the mist setting on your spray bottle. They're ready to transplant when they've grown four or more "true" leaves, but they'll benefit from a week of hardening off in a protected outdoor area.

Get Pansied Up with Seed Needs

You can find flowers of every color of the rainbow in our online catalog of ornamental, herb, and vegetable seeds...or in our selection of pansy seeds alone. We believe diversity belongs in everyone's garden, and our blog can help you expand your horizons with growing tips, species highlights, and good ol' fashioned fun.

Don't hesitate to reach out to us with your questions! We love to hear from our customers. Want to ask about a custom order? Have a problem with an order you've received? Have a request for our growing online catalog? We're here for you!
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