University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Spring News ArticleGROWING PANSIES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Pansies are annual garden flowers (blooms for only one year, then dies)
that are usually the first you find for sale in stores in spring.
Pansies have been around for many years and are popular, being easy to
grow and so colorful during the cooler days of spring and fall.
In cool northern climates, pansies will bloom well into summer when
temperatures turn hot. In warm southern climates they’re often planted
again in fall, lasting into and even through the winter. Keeping
flowers picked off after bloom (if you have just a few in containers)
will keep them more tidy and promote more blooms. If you’re lucky,
they’ll self-sow seeds, coming back in future years.
Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) are hybrids of several species, the most common being the viola known as “Heartsease” (Viola tricolor).
While the terms viola and pansy are often used interchangeably, there
actually is a difference. Flowers of violas are usually smaller, those
of pansies larger. The real difference, though, is that pansies have
four petals pointing upward and one pointing downward; violas or violets
have three petals pointing upward and two downward.
Pansy flowers usually have blotches or markings, making them resemble a
face. This was first discovered on a sport (mutation) in the late
1830s, at the time that pansies were first becoming popular in Europe
and England, with hundreds of varieties. Originally, pansies began as
wildflowers in Europe and western Asia.
Pansies continue to be bred, with colors ranging from white to almost
black, and most any color and combination in between. There are ones
with large flowers such as the Majestic Giant series (3 to 4 inches
across), medium such as the Crown and Imperial series (2 to 3 inches),
and multiflora such as the Maxim series and the orange Padparadja (one
to 2 inches). Series are simply groups of cultivars (cultivated
varieties) that differ in color but share other traits such as flower
shape, size, and hardiness.
Several pansies have been All-America Selections winners such as
Majestic Giant White Face in 1966, Imperial Blue in 1975, and both Maxim
Marina and Padparadja in 1991. Some pansies have a pleasant
scent—generally yellow and blue ones—the scent most noticed in early
morning and at dusk.
There even is a new category of trailing pansies, which spread over two
feet wide. WonderFall and Cool Wave are a couple of these to look for
in stores. They are best in hanging baskets, as groundcovers, or
spilling over edges of large containers.
If you want to start pansies from seeds, plan on plenty of time—14 to 16
weeks before planting outside in early spring. This means you’ll need
to start them in late January or early February indoors, under grow
lights or on a sunny windowsill. It will take several weeks for the
tiny seeds to germinate and grow a couple sets of true leaves, at which
time you can start giving them a dilute fertilizer. From sowing onward,
make sure to keep the soil moist. A well-drained seed-sowing mix
should be used for sowing and growing on, not soil.
If you don’t want the challenge or have the time to start your own
pansies, you can buy them in spring ready to plant in the garden or
pots. Use a good potting mix for containers such as windowboxes, adding
some slow release or organic fertilizer (according to your choice), at
the labeled rates. Use such fertilizer too in the garden, to which
you’ve added an inch or two of compost. Keep plants watered, especially
after planting, but avoid overhead watering—water the soil instead to
prevent leaf and flower diseases. Roots may rot if soils are
waterlogged and too wet.
There are few pests that bother pansies, and even aphids and spider
mites that may get on them usually do little harm. If you find slugs
eating your pansies, there are many remedies to try including saucers of
beer (slugs are attracted to them, then drown), copper strips, egg
shells, even coffee grounds sprinkled among plants. Put a roll of moist
newspaper in the garden which slugs may hide in during the day (they
tend to feed at night), then just remove the paper and slugs.
Plant pansies six to ten inches apart. Even the largest stay under one
foot high and wide. Full sun is fine in cool, northern climate.
Morning sun is best in warmer climates.
Other than just enjoying pansies for their cheery spring color in
containers, along walks and edges, or massed in borders, you can eat the
flowers in salads and dessert. Their flavor is slightly minty. Or,
pick them to dry and use in potpourri. In the Language of Flowers,
popular in Victorian times, pansies represented the thoughts of lovers.
The word pansy comes from the French word “pensee” meaning thought or
remembrance. During the 19th century they were used for “love potions”.
Others have used the flowers as a natural dye.
Related to pansies, but with much smaller flowers, are Johnny Jump-Ups.
Although traditionally in purple, lavender and yellow, you can find
these with other colors such as white, wine red, and pastels. They’re
great to interplant with spring bulbs, and usually come back each year
For its ease of growth and color, pansy was named by the National Garden
Bureau as the annual Flower of the Year for 2017. You can learn more
about this and other flowers of the year on their website (ngb.org).
Return to Perry's Perennial