Pansy Wonderfall Blue Picotee
© George Weigel

The pansy is a happy plant, an old-fashioned little flower with bright petals and designs that growers call “faces.” What do you see in the pansy petal design? Are those wings? Or beards? Whatever the pattern looks like, the pansy is a type of viola that gardeners have grown for hundreds of years. Shakespeare mentioned them in Hamlet. They’re usually grown as annual flowers in cool seasons since heat is their main downfall. Southern gardeners grow them throughout winter before replacing them with summer annuals, while Northern gardeners plant them in early spring or early fall for a pop of color.  Fall-planted pansies in the North often survive winter to bloom again in spring, while spring-planted ones usually peter out in summer but sometimes make a comeback with cooler, rainier September weather and a scattering of fertilizer.

Pansy or viola?

Pansies in a salad
Pansy in Salad © Thinkstock

You’ll find both pansies and similar-looking violas (sometimes called violets or Johnny Jump-ups) at the garden center. What’s the difference?  Pansies were bred from types of wild violets and generally have larger flowers, larger leaves, and those distinctive face/pantsuit designs. But the telltale sign is that pansies have two overlapping petals pointing up, two facing sideways, and one pointing down, while violas have three petals facing up and two facing down.

A floral snack

If you get tired of looking at pansies, pick some petals and eat them (assuming you haven’t sprayed them). They have a mildly sweet to minty flavor and add lively color to a salad. Rabbits like them, too, so drape netting over your planting while plants are young.  Pansies range in color from white to almost black with practically every shade between – including the treasured flower color of true blue.  Grow them in full sun to afternoon-shade locations in moist, fairly rich and well drained soil.

By George Weigel