What a great choice. The National Garden Bureau has declared 2017 the Year of the Pansy.
This happy-faced flower, in all its permutations and combinations, brightens gardens, container displays, and public landscaping projects with unparalleled elegance and color throughout all the coolest months.
But nowhere loves the pansy, appreciates it, and uses it effectively as do we Southerners, when it is the staple of our winter landscaping.
Until the middle of the 19th century, this friendly little plant was considered nothing much better than a weed. But some gardeners, especially in England, had the time, and the staff of gardeners, to work at making it even better than it was.
One heroine in this endeavor, Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett, daughter of the Earl of Tankerville, and her gardener embarked on an ambitious project. They cross-bred a wide variety of Viola tricolor, which they called “hearts’ ease” and which we know and grow even today as Johnny Jump-ups. These were known through Great Britain as early as 1813.
In the late 1830s, the classic pansy “face” was discovered in a chance sport that showed a broad dark blotch on the petals. James, Lord Gambier, released it to the public under the name ‘Medora.’
The serious-minded hybridizers of the time used Viola tricolor, Viola lutea, and a blue-flowered species of Russian origin, Viola altacia, and the multiplicity of “faces” and colors was on a fast progressive run.
Today, modern pansies are classified by the American Violet Society as having large flowers with two slightly overlapping upper petals, two side petals, and a single bottom petal with a slight beard in its center.
Now they come in a rainbow of colors, from crisp white to almost black, and almost all colors in-between. My preferences now are to the ones with blues in variety; but when I was first a gardener on my own, I loved the clear reds.
They are the basic top bedding plant for outdoor decoration in the winter, and can also be grown in empty spaces in the fall and spring vegetable gardens, filling in as winter food crops are harvested. If you are so minded, they can even be candied and used to decorate cakes and other baked goods.
Always needing to categorize, the pansy retailers divide the current most popular pansy hybrids into large (three to four-inch flowers), medium (two to three-inch blooms), multiflora, one to two inches, and the newest category, trailing, which offers plants ideal for hanging baskets and tall containers.
The large-flowered series includes the Majestic Giant, Delta, and Matrix. Medium-sized groups are best exemplified by the Crown and the Imperial series. Cool Wave is the hottest item among the trailers.
I doubt if you can find a good selection of pansies in garden centers now, if you, like me, have waited too late to get ambitious. But you may be lucky. Mostly there will be large pots, with other flowers added for special effects.
You can grow your own pansies from seed, given the time and space and inclination. But my memories of growing pansies in my own garden go back to the mid-1960s, when we lived on Birchwood Drive.
My mother and father would come up from Natchez for a visit, and we’d make a run for the old David Feed and Seed Store on the west side of South State Street.
What my mother preferred, and of course I did what she said, was the bunches of small pansy seedlings, divided by colors (they had some fine red ones, I remember), a size ready for transplanting easily. What I would like, now (or last October had I been more alert) would have been the small six-packs, by color.
If you aren’t just planting in containers, but in open ground, these pansies would like morning sun. They need fertilizer in the ground when planting. I discovered rather by accident that the best way to have great bedding pansies for a long season was to sprinkle half a cup full of slow release fertilizer (Osmocote, I think, was my choice), and they need moisture.
The difficult thing about pansies is that they, along with daylilies, are aptly nicknamed “deer candy.” Even 15 years ago, out here in south Madison County, it was not much problem. But if you are willing to buy or concoct your own “deer spray,” and apply it as soon as you set the plants in - don’t take time for a cup of coffee, because the deer mysteriously know new unprotected plants are in place. Then, about every two weeks, spray again.
So now I have been reminded of how much I do like having pansies in bloom, I’ve made a note in my very new pocket-sized two-year reminder book to start looking for good pansy plants at least by Columbus Day of 2017.