April 28, 2013

In Search of the Heirloom Pansy

Heirloom Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) are selections that predate 1900. These old fasioned
Chalon varieties have ruffles petals, so favored by the victorians. These are young, and will
form more ruffles with age, as long as the weather remains so delightfully cool this spring.

We live in a world of super fancy pansies. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for 'super fancy', especially when it comes to plants, but generally always appreciate 'old-fashioned fancy' - heirloom, antique varieties that were once the 'super fancy' of their time. For Pansies, their time was 1870- 1900 - a time when viola and pansy societies attracted many active members in the UK. Of course, not everyone joined these exclusive 'leisure societies', as then, generally speaking, ones status and class divided the working class from the rich and privelidged who could not only afford choice plants, but whom also had free time.

In North America, it was a different story, as viola's ( pansies are a cross within the viola genus - Viola-wittrockiana), as well as their other kin within the broad genus of viola, the 'Johnny Jump Up's, the violets- both scented, and non, and other selections of violas became popular cottage flowers and even cut flowers in most American gardens. Their ease of culture during those years of coal and wood-fired glass houses, meant that they could be grown to perfection in nothing more than a hot bed ( a cold frame heated with farm manure), ensureing that every class could afford the happy, cheerful face of the pansy in early springtime.

Today, pansies are swept aside as a disposable annual, promoted along side annuals which are far showier, but on sale far too early ( Impatiens and marigolds are already rushing off the shelves at my local Home Depot - a full month before they should be planted outdoors). Like many things, the pansy is suffering from an un-informed cunsumer who thinks they are buying something which may bloom all summer, not knowing that pansies perform best when sown in the autumn garden, or that pansies 'call it a day' once temperatures rise well above 75º F. This means little to opportunistic garden centers and home stores as they push and promote pansies along side 'far-too-early' tomatoes and other tender annuals, even selling them in hanging baskets, plastic bag-tubes and other novelty plantings. I think we have lost what is so special about the pansy - which is an appreciation for simplicity.

 You may see 'old-fashioned' or even 'herloom' pansy seed offered by some seed catalogs, but true 'heirloom' varieties are lost. Many have been trying to back-breed, or re-breed similar selections, which are quite nice, but those once grown and introduced by the Vilmorin Company in paris are gone forever. Rumors inform me that the Dutch are experimenting in exploring older-looking varieties ( those with larger, ruffled flowers, or those with interesting rich color combinations with stripes, speckles and happier faces, but no one has yet been able to match the forms once so popular in the 1800's. Grower Kees Sahin keeps more than 10,000 varieties growing in the Netherlands. Try Renee's Garden for some heirloom mixes. I scour my local nurseries every spring, looking for mixes the look old fasioned. I tend to like muddier colors, browns, gold, black and putty colors. I'm not one to go for bright, solid colors with no faces on them, it's just not my style.

Mssrs. Veitch & Sons in London, once carried hundreds of selections of pansies around 1840.

I love to line the edges of my raised vegetable beds with two or three rows of pansies, which brightens up the grid of plots, and helps lift my spirits - at least until late June when the pansy season around here, is over, as hot and humid summer weather is the pansies enemy. They prefer cool, damp and misty spring conditions, but there are a few things you can do to let your pansies blooming as long as they possible can. First, keep the dead blossoms ( and most importantly, their seed pods) picked off. Second, fertilize them with a good liquid feed low in nitrogen. This will keep the roots study and deep, and the buds forming. I use 5.36.17. Third, grow your plants from seed if you can, for pansies do best if sown in the autumn, and allowed to grow slowing into winter weather. Don't worry, they can freeze, and we spring comes around, they may be later than the one that show up at the home center - but once they start blooming, they may continue all summer.

Pansies that I planted as seedling that I started last August, are still in their raised beds, and they are slowing starting to bud up. All the pansies in this post were purchased, but these such as the one in this picture, were wintered-over. In a few weeks, these garden plants will be lush, mounds of color.

Since we are hosting a garden/greenhouse party next Friday night for the opening of the American Primrose Society National Exhibition being held at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, I need some color in the greenhouse. Since I am primula deficient right now, pansies will have to do. I was inspired by the old Auricula Theaters one sees in England, where individual pots are set in row, and then tiered on steps so that one can appreciate each primrose up close. This sort of display works well with pansies, too. So this is how I am decorating the potting bench in the rear of my greenhouse. When guest walk through the greenhouse next Friday night with a glass of wine in hand, they will be surprised by these tiered rows of antique pansy varieties.

This weekend I found some ruffled exhibition varieties at a local garden center, which thrilled me, because all I could find at Home Depot were huge, floppy over-fertilized monsters. These, are what pansies are supposed to look like.
I potted some in home made pots to show off the young plants, but soon they will be upgraded to larger containers.
 I have this problem when I visit garden centers and nurseries in the early spring, when trays and trays of pansies are lines out in neat rows.. My problem is that I cannot choose my favorite one, and usually leave with either too many, or none. You see, I am very particular about my color palette when it comes to pansies, those selections from the genus Viola, that we can have a love/hate relationship with.  I have a long history with pansies, as it was one of the first plants that I ever grew, or at least, potted up, as my kindergarten teacher helped us plant pansies in egg shells one Mothers Day, as my elementary school happened to be across the street from a large glass greenhouse, one which grew pansies every spring.
Each year, I must buy a selection, but I vary the color palette each year, trying to not choose new hybrids, but instead, seeking older varieties, and maybe even exhibition varieties that were once so popular in England. At my first job as a gardener while in high school, I remember that the owner of the estate that I worked at insisted on light-blue pansies, which had to be planted out by the thousands in sweeping arcs ( all bordered with blue festuca grass - as the garden was designed by Fletcher Steele). Today, I still like these light blue pansies, but I find them more difficult to find amidst all of the new hybrids.

Don't turn away from some of the more difficult colors with pansies - check out how this combo worked last year for me.
Red, black and blackberry colored Primroses, Pansies and Anemones.
Tiger Eye Pansies are another favorite. The mustard gold color might seem difficult to integrate into the garden, but
pansies are supposed to be brown, muddy and messy with their coloring. Why not celebrate these odd tones and hues?

These ruffled giant pansies will look much better in a few weeks, but for now, they are enjoying an Impruneta
trerra cotta pot from Italy.

Thanks everyone!


  1. thank you for all of the info on pansies. i had no idea that the varieties that are advertised today as "heirloom" actually are not.

    down south, pansies were our go-to late fall and winter plantings. i, like you, am very picky about my color palate. i would spend weeks agonizing over what color pansies to put in my window boxes & front door planters. i would inevitably end up with a bright yellow that was great for halloween, thanksgiving and early spring. hated it for christmas and new years, so would cover the yellow pansies with magnolia leaves until the hollidays had passed. it's hard to be particular :)

  2. Hi Nanne,
    Oh that's so funny, but I get it. Who wants yellow pansies at Christmas!

  3. hopflower11:51 PM

    I still love pansies after many years of seeing them. The blues and lavenders are my favourites; but they are all beautiful and can be counted upon in late autumn and winter here in northern California.

  4. Anonymous12:15 PM

    Chiltern Seeds in the UK actually has what they call Historic Florist Pansies listed this year and the photo on their website depicts those muddy colors you describe. I've got a packet from them and will start them to grow out over the coming winter, we'll see what they do.

  5. Oh Anonymous- just the sort of hint I was dreaming someone would share!. Thanks for the tip, I am off to order some right now!! Thanks.

  6. Great post on Pansies! They are one of my favorite early plants. I love you photo of all the pansies in their own pots. So pretty!

  7. Hi Matt,

    I've always loved the pansies with faces. The gold "faces" with either a rich blue or purple are my favorites - so rich looking.

  8. Thank you for the Pansy Primer.

    My mentor, Miss Billie, also said to get yellow violas for southern winters. Cream colors make a nice compromise.

    Growing from seed isn't as great a task as some might believe; mine reseed if I miss a few seed pods.

    I'm considering where I could use a little staging, too.

  9. My mother(89years of age) keeps insisting she wants "Old Fashion" brand pansy plants. Reading your article I suppose the true type are gone forever. Sad. Thanks to those trying to resurrect them and to you for the most complete informative article I have found. Whitworth451

  10. My mother(89years of age) keeps insisting she wants "Old Fashion" brand pansy plants. Reading your article I suppose the true type are gone forever. Sad. Thanks to those trying to resurrect them and to you for the most complete informative article I have found. Whitworth451


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