Pansies, Viola × wittrockiana: “Heart’s Ease”
Pansies have been a popular garden flower for many centuries, most notably for the Victorians who not only filled their gardens with these happy and colorful plants but also pressed them, embroidered them, and even ate them.
It was also the Victorians who set about breeding these easy-to-grow perennials, which are a similar shape to their near relative the viola but have bigger petals and a central eye. Their botanical name, Viola × wittrockiana, came from the Swedish botanist Veit Brecher Wittrock.
Read on for everything you need to know about pansies (and a little more about Dr. Wittrock):
Photography by Mimi Giboin except where noted.
Pansies have spreading green foliage and five rounded, layered velvety petals, which come in a wide range of colors and bi-colors from violet and mauve through to rich pinks, oranges and yellows, and even black and white.
In 1895 the Swedish botanist Wittrock published a comprehensive Contribution to the History of the Pansies, having special reference to their Origin, in which he described more than 400 varieties. “As a monograph of a botanical group, treated from the horticultural side and from a florist’s point of view, we know of none to equal Dr. Wittrock’s ‘contributions’,” noted The Horticultural Trade Journal in 1903.
The poet Emily Dickinson imagined what it would be like to be a stalwart pansy, standing up to early spring’s bad weather: “I’m the little “Heart’s Ease”! I don’t care for pouting skies!” Did Ms. Dickinson expect her pansy to succumb? Never: “Heaven does not change her blue. Nor will I, the little Heart’s Ease—Ever be induced to do!”
- Many people treat pansies as an annual, discarding them after the season is over, but these are for the most part hardy perennials.
- Pansies are perfect for brightening up a dull corner in the cooler months where they can be left to bloom year after year.
- The beautiful colors are one of the key features for pansy growers, and seed growers are continually increasing the range. At Chiltern Seeds the range includes Viola x wittrockiana Historic Florist Pansies (£4.25 per packet) has been specially bred in the style of Victorian pansies and which produces elegant flowers from violet and rich purples through to dusty pinks and unusual shades includes rusty browns and khakis.
Like violas, pansies are edible and make a colorful addition to salads. They can also be sugar coated as a pretty decoration for cakes. Paint the entire surface of the flower, back and front, using a small brush dipped in whisked egg white. Sprinkle both sides with caster sugar and then leave to dry face down on paper for 24 hours.
Keep It Alive
- Pansies are easy to grow from seed, in summer for winter flowers, or in early spring for summer flowers.
- Interplant them with other early spring bulbs including small narcissi that can rise up through the pansies.
- The smaller-flowered varieties tend to look better for longer than the more flamboyant bigger flowers that can get battered by rain and wind.
If you’re growing the plants in pots, add a layer of grit or gravel across the top of the pot. This will prevent compost from splattering up onto the flowers and makes the display more visually appealing too.
Pansies need a free-draining but moist soil and are happy in sun or partial shade but they will need water in dry spells. Keep deadheading to encourage more flowers.
N.B.: It’s nearly pansy season; if you’re planning to plant (or pick) pansies this spring learn more about them in our Perennials 101 plant guide: