November 21, 2017

Pansies: Charmers to Ease Your Heart

Viola × wittrockiana - Dynamite 'Blueberry Thrill'

Janine Pineo Photo | Viola × wittrockiana - Dynamite 'Blueberry Thrill'

• By Janine Pineo •

As I walked up across the back lawn a couple of weeks ago, I thought I spied a spot of purple next to my herb pots.

It couldn’t be, I thought. Not after a winter chock-full of days and nights well below zero. Especially those nights when it bottomed out at 40 below. It couldn’t be.

To settle the debate, I changed course and headed to my little rose and herb garden in the corner of the yard.

There, its small face turned to catch the morning sun, was a pansy.

I chuckled with delight as I looked the plant over and discovered some other compatriots had sprouted alongside the little fellow, right where I planted them last year. I started checking other spots and found a few more plants had made it through our rather bleak winter. Some of the plants were no more than 3 inches tall, with blossoms barely a half-inch long. But there they were, proudly holding their pansy faces up to the sun.

Every year I buy flat after flat of pansies. I’ve wondered what it is about them that activates the impulse shopper in me.

It’s quite simple. Pansies are charmers.

There’s just something in the sweet face of a pansy that makes me smile. I’m not alone in that because scores of years ago the viola was called heartsease. Then again, someone else called it love-in-idleness. (I’m still trying to figure out if that means the person who loves it is whiling away his or her life staring at a patch of pansies like a mooncalf OR if it means the pansy is idle — which could never be true, since this little bloomer never quits.)

In past years, I’ve had quite a few varieties survive the winter, but the oddest one had to be a patch of black pansies that traveled about eight feet away from spot I put it. The first year after I planted them, I found a little clump loaded with black velvet faces peeking through the latticework around the base of the deck. The next year, they moved a little farther back under the deck. Short of ripping off the lattice the next year and crawling under the floor, I wouldn’t see them again. And while I didn’t catch the pansy mover in the act, I’m pretty sure a bird, or maybe a squirrel, helped the pansy stake out a new claim both times.

Pansies require some care, but the results are more than worth the effort. After trying different locations, I’ve discovered pansies don’t mind morning sun and really like dappled shade. I generally don’t water pansies unless there’s a drought; I have found it makes for healthier, stronger plants. But the most important thing of all is to deadhead the plants regularly. Do that and the blossoms just keep coming.

My greatest joy this spring was to discover a couple of varieties that have surprisingly sweet fragrances. One is called Victorian. Its midsize blossoms are ruffled around the edges and its colors run the gamut behind a heavily veined face. A bouquet of these softly — and beautifully — perfumes a room.

The other scented variety is Imperial Antique Shades. This hybrid has large blooms and seems to be several shades of faded rose.

Along with those I found a gorgeous variety named Delft (it really looks like the dishes) and Watercolor (it was the soft, creamy yellow one that caught my eye).

I am enchanted by Eclipse. The blossom is dark purple rimmed with white, sort of like — you guessed it — an eclipse, the “ring of fire” variety. I first saw Eclipse at my grandmother’s this spring, and since I’d not seen anything like them, she gave me a flat for my garden. But in my later travels on the greenhouse circuit, I found a whole stash of them, and bought a few more, of course.

In all my enthusiasm for these new guys, I didn’t forget the old standbys such as True Blue, Universal Orange, Maxim Marina, Imperial Purple and White, Imperial Pink Shades and Imperial Wine Fashion.

Some of the new varieties I planted in my newest garden in front of the house. They’re providing a rainbow of colors while the perennials get their feet under them.

Most of the rest went into a new-old pansy bed at one end of the house. I had let the garden go over the past couple of years but decided to dig up the sod and pack the front with pansies, put in some taller annuals in the back and top the plot with a trellis full of morning glories (I hope).

So last week, while the bees buzzed in and out of the pansies and butterflies skittered about the yard, I dug sod, swatted mosquitoes and tucked flat after flat of pansies into the ground.

It took several hours over a couple of days, but when I finished, what a sight. Every time I leave the house, the little charmers put my heart at ease and a smile on my face.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in June 1994.