I have to admit it, this article will be a little bit biased because garden pansies are one of my favourite of all the flowering annual plants. Garden pansies belong to the violet family Violaceae which also contains sweet violet (Viola odorata) and a host of other lesser known species.
The term pansy generally refers to any large flowered hybrid of Viola tricolor and a combination of several other Viola species (in particular Viola lutea and Viola altaica).
The binomial name attributed to any of these garden pansies is Viola × wittrockiana although applying this name to the whole group is rather misleading as different colored pansy flowers may have been bred from different parent species. Nethertheless the ease of hybridisation within the genus Viola also means that different cultivars of Viola × wittrockiana will also readily interbreed.
An easy distinguishing feature between pansies and other violet flowers is that pansies will have 4 petals which point upwards towards the sky with only one pointing towards the ground, while other violets will have 3 downwards and 2 upwards pointing petals. While technically other smaller flowered Viola species are also pansies (such as heartsease Viola tricolor and horned violets Viola cornuta) it is generally only the larger flowered hybrids which are referred to as pansies by the horticultural trade.
Due to extensive breeding pansy flowers come in a wide range of colors including reds, yellows, oranges, whites, blues, purples, crimsons, and near-blacks. Pansy flowers often retain the intricate face markings of their parent species, although there are solid colored cultivars also readily available. They can produce blossoms up to 3 inches across.
Pansies are low growing plants which rarely reach more than 7 inches tall but can form a wonderful flowering groundcover when planted en masse. Choose a sunny or partially shaded position when planting pansies and ensure the soil is free draining and fertile. Dig compost through the soil if lacking in organic matter and incorporate sand and gypsum into heavy clay soils. If this seems like too much work you can also grow pansies in pots filled with a good quality premium potting mix.
Pansies are frost tolerant and can even survive brief periods of snow cover, although they should be buried under a thick layer of mulch to prevent them from totally freezing. In warmer areas they will grow and flower throughout Winter. Warm weather can cause pansies to stop flowering and hot weather will kill them, so to make the most of the cool weather plant pansy flowers during Fall. In areas with long, cold Winters and mild summers it’s best to start pansies early indoors in punnets and plant as soon as the ground has thawed in late Winter or early Spring for an early Summer flowering display.
For best result water pansies regularly and feed with a diluted liquid fertiliser weekly. Remove spent flowers as soon as they begin to look shabby to prolong flowering.
Although garden pansies are actually perennials they are best grown as annuals as they tend to become leggy in their second year. Originally pansies did not flower until their second year of growth but most cultivars available today have been bred to put on their best display during their first year.
Pansies can sometimes suffer from a number of pest and diseases. Aphids and slugs can be problematic but these can be controlled using organic methods.
Diseases that pansies can suffer from include leaf spot, mildew and stem rot, all of which are fungal diseases which can all be reduced by avoiding overwatering, avoiding growing during warmer times of the year and allowing room between each plant for air circulation.
Pansies can also be susceptible to cucumber mosaic virus, a disease spread via aphids which causes yellow vein patterning on younger leaves and distorted growth. Controlling aphids and other diseases will limit the spread and impact of cucumber mosaic virus however any diseased plants should be removed and disposed of in a sealed bag in the trash. Avoid collecting seed from infected plants as the seeds will also be infected by the virus. Also be on the lookout and avoid purchasing any pansy seedlings which show the symptoms of cucumber mosaic virus.
Growing pansy flowers can be very rewarding and hopefully not too difficult when these simple tips are followed. They can really help to add a touch of flowering color to the garden during Winter when it can otherwise look a bit drab. It’s great to get the children involved and they’ll really enjoy the bright range of colors and whisker-like faces of these spectacular, little flowers.