I was a little girl when my dad pointed out the “faces” on pansies. After showing me how to pick the flower without yanking the whole plant out of the ground, he told me I could pick as many as I wanted because picking them would make the plants produce more flowers. I’ve loved the many colors and patterns of pansies ever since, in the garden, in a vase, and even in a pretty salad.

The modern pansy is a descendent of the little “Johnny-jump-up” that is still around today. During the 1800s in England, horticulturists on the estates of Lord Gambier and Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet worked with these three-tone violas to produce blooms with single colors, then new colors, then the “faces” instead of small stripes.

Modern pansies have been bred to produce larger blooms, some as big as two inches across. In the early twentieth century, Dr. Charles Stewart of Scotland developed the clear, unmarked pansies that are popular today.

Home gardeners almost never start pansies from seed because the plants are biennials. They spend their first year storing energy through leaf production and don’t flower until the second year. Between the first and second year, the plants would have to endure our summer, and pansies don’t like hot weather. So we buy plants in their second year, having spent their first year in production greenhouses.

Nov garden photo

Now that the temperature seems willing to remain below 80 degrees, we can pull up our summer annuals and plant pansies. Give them loose soil and some all-purpose fertilizer in the ground or in pots. They will bloom throughout a mild winter with an extra burst of flowers in the spring. In a hard winter, they’ll bloom less, reserving their flowers for warmer days.

Pansies come in every color. The only exceptions I can think of are green (Why bother?) and gray. Between the black and white pansies, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone eventually develops shades of “silver.” You can plant an entire bed in one color or a range of related colors. For more pop, mix two or more contrasting colors. You can probably find pansies in the colors of your favorite school.

After using all pink ‘Baby Angel Wing’ begonias in our front beds this summer – a great performer that I’ll definitely buy again – I chose pansies in bright yellow, pale yellow, orange, light blue, and dark purple. I still have time to buy some shades of red or pink mixed with some white for the back garden.

As you shop for pansies, don’t overlook the little violas. Their flowers are smaller, but they make up for the size difference with abundance. This makes them a good landscape plant offering a lot of color. They can still be cut flowers in a dainty vase.

Don’t resist a bit of impulse buying. One year, as an afterthought, I bought a few two-tone violas with orange and purple flowers. The little patch of ground where I planted them became the most cheerful spot in the garden.


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