Marin Master Gardeners
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Pansy--A Friend in Winter

January 14, 2008
D.F. Braun

When flowers in summer are so plentiful, it’s sometimes difficult to choose which ones to pick. We are not thinking about the bare, cold days of winter when the earth is a miser. We peer about for a bit of color — a muddy hellebore or premature wild violet to brighten the day. To true lovers of fresh flowers this is a disturbing time.

Unless of course, you haven’t overlooked the hardy Pansy for your garden!
A 1913 Putnam Word Book has descriptions of the Pansy as “heart-ease,” “love-in-idleness,” which the Elizabethans called them in association with innocent, unspoiled love. One romantic story is about Napoleon who, when banished to Elba, said he would “return with the violets.” When he did return Josephine was dead and he picked violets for her grave before being exiled again to St. Helena. They were found along with a lock of her hair when he died.
The American Heritage Dictionary uses the horticultural description of Pansies, as well as the pejorative term indicating weakness and effeminacy.
Well! Not my Pansies! On the contrary, Viola tricolor hortorsis stands up steady and strong defying the heavy rains and frosts.
The type genus for the family Violaceae, viola includes some 500 species of annuals, perennials and sub-shrubs found in the world’s temperate zones, ranging from the subarctic to the mountains of New Zealand. The majority are small clump-forming plants. All violas have similarly shaped, five-petal flowers with that lower petal often carrying dark markings. While white, yellow and purple dominate, the beauty and wonders of these flowers is that they occur in every color among garden forms. Their bright faces on a gray day cheer the hearts.
The Pansies are hardy and easily grown in sun or shade. The woodland species prefer humus, a rich soil, while the rockery types require something grittier, but most are fine in any moist, well-drained soil. We can treat these plants as a biennial, which when planted in fall will bloom throughout winter, spring and in shady spots into the summer. The trick is to treat them as one does the Sweet Pea and remove faded flowers to keep them from going to seed.
There is a great variety of Pansies available in nurseries: Viola wittrockiana seeds are available and can be started in early fall while it is still warm. They’re best started in pots so they can be brought inside on unusually cold evenings until they mature. Your nursery carries many varieties of the Viola wittrockiana ready to plant in your garden. Consider ‘Crystal Bowl Orange’ with abundant colored flowers, which will continue to produce throughout summer, or ‘Pat Kavanaugh,’ a particular favorite with its bright yellow masses of color.
The English gardeners have a tradition of using Pansies to enhance the unattractive bareroot stock of roses in winter. Planted over bulbs they fill the area and compliment emerging flowers. They also thrive in window boxes and let’s not forget that they are edible and can be used to adorn salads.
By the way, Viola sororia, better known as “Freckles,” is the state flower of New Jersey. Betcha’ won’t call anyone in Jersey City a “Pansy”!

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