Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell;
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it Love-in-Idleness.
— Oberon in William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1595)
In this passage, Oberon, King of the Fairies, refers to an enchanting story about the pansy (Viola x wittrockiana), a much-loved garden flower in Shakespeare’s time, as well as our own.
According to Roman myth, all pansies were white until Cupid misfired one of his arrows, which turned the flower purple and bestowed it with magical powers: When pansy juice is pressed onto the eyelids of someone sleeping, the potion causes that person, upon waking, to fall head over heels in love with the first thing that comes along. This plot device creates hilarious romantic chaos in Shakespeare’s play.
I believe pansies are magical, and they do make us fall head over heels in love — with the flowers. Far from sporting only purple or white flowers (although they come in those colors, too), pansies are available in an ever-increasing plethora of flower color combinations and petal sizes; some cultivars even have frilly petals.
Planted in September or early October, pansies can add color to the garden through winter. They might become a bit bedraggled after several months, but will produce fresh foliage and flowers in springtime that look great with our favorite bulbs.
When purchasing pansies from a nursery, look for plants with healthy foliage and stems that are not stretched or leggy. They should also have lots of unopened flower buds, and the roots should not girdle the bottom of the container (see my blog for how to grow pansies from seed).
Pansies like a loose, rich, well draining soil that is slightly acidic (6.0-6.5 pH). Use a garden fork to break up the soil and add compost to each planting hole. Plant your pansy so the base of the stem is just above ground level. Plant pansies in groups about 6 inches apart. Pansies are particularly effective as border or edging plants because they grow less than one foot tall. They’ll bloom more in the fall and winter if they receive as much sunshine as possible (in the spring, they like a bit of shade).
In February, use sterilized pruning shears to cut back the length of each stem by one-third; this will help rejuvenate the plant without causing irreparable shock. Add a balanced fertilizer to boost new growth and blooming in spring. Afterward, annual/biennial pansies will need to be replaced.
The biggest challenge to overwintering pansies is that they can become waterlogged by winter rain and snow. Mulching helps prevent this, but the cover layer can harbor insect pests and fungal diseases. Varieties that tend to overwinter well include Sky, Delta, Bingo and Accord Series; and Icicle, Crystal Bowl, Presto, Skyline, Universal and Maxim pansies.
If you prefer longer-lasting pansies, there are several perennials, including a fragrant winter bloomer called Viola cornuta.
Although Shakespeare called the pansy “love-in-idleness” (meaning “love without worth”), there is much about these flowers to truly adore. In fact, the number of common names bestowed upon the viola indicates that pansies have long been admired. A few of my favorite monikers are jump-up-and-kiss-me-quick, heartsease, herb trinity and cuddle-me-to-you.
— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on gardening, read her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.