Sunday, February 11, 2018

Plant Story--A Tribute to Pansies, Viola species

Pansies are so commonly planted as to seem uninteresting. Indeed, I have surprisingly few photos of pansies in my large collection of photographs that were taken just to show a pansy.

But why are they so widely planted?  First, they're bright colored. Not only bright-colored, they come in colors including nearly black, purple, blue, red, yellow and white and combinations of those.


Second, they're hardy. They are very tolerant of cold. That is what prompted this post about them in February. There's a little group of pansies growing in a pile of rocks that have been flowering throughout this Colorado winter. It is not as if we didn't have snow or below freezing temperatures. We've had three or more inches of snow about once a week since December. The lows have been below freezing throughout and about of the third of the days have had the highs below freezing. That's a mild winter for Colorado but it is certainly winter. Throughout that, the pansies turned green as soon as the snow melted and in a day or two more, opened new flowers:

Dec. 2
pansies, Loveland Colorado December 20, 2017

Jan. 7, 2018 - A little the worse for the snowstorms, but old flowers have survived and the plants are putting out new ones

pansies, Loveland Colorado, January 7, 2018

January 11. Its been tough, but, look, that protected bud is opening

pansies, Loveland Colorado, January 11, 2018

February 5 Lots have died

pansies, Loveland Colorado, February 5, 2018

But look, here's one February 5 flower

pansies, Loveland Colorado, February 5, 2018

On Feb. 8 I saw crocuses blooming on the library's lawn, so I conclude it is spring. . . though of course frosts are expected up through May 15.

But wow, pansies that persisted in blooming all winter, at just about 5000' in northern Colorado.

Pansies are violets, genus Viola, members of the violet family, Violaceae. The original pansy was a European native, Viola tricolor, called pansy but also johnny jump up, heartsease, monkey faces and more. Today's garden pansy is a hybrid, usually called Viola x wittrockiana. Garden pansy diversity is was produced by plant breeders in the last two hundred years crossing Viola species--and there are easily 400 species in the genus Viola--to make bigger flowers in novel colors and patterns. In 1868 Charles Darwin summarized pansy diversity in  The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, (p. 368) read quote: link --clearly pansies were diverse 150 years ago. And there are many more varieties today.

Lehndorff and Peters in Best Garden Plants for Colorado listed garden pansies for this region but also winter or ice pansies, Viola hiemalis. Winter pansies are a particularly cold-tolerant species with bigger flowers than wild pansies but small flowers for a garden pansy. It may be that the plants which have been flowering all winter are winter pansies. I don't see winter pansy seeds widely available for sale online, since I aspire to growing these cold-tolerant flowers myself. What ever species, hybrid, or variety, the plants were certainly sold as pansies.

pansies in winter

Pansies can be found in the folklore since ancient Rome. The Romans saw pansies as a symbol of love. In their mythology one of Cupid's arrows accidentally hit a pansy, conveying to it the magic for inducing love. The effect of a love potion made from pansies is the source of many of the scenes in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The name pansy is derived from the French name for the plant, pensĂ©e, "thought" and the meaning was remembered in English, which explains quotes such as in Hamlet, where Ophelia says" There's pansies, that's for thoughts" (Act 4, Scene 5).


Pansy as an often derogatory name for a homosexual man, an effeminate man or a weakling, goes back to the late 1800s, but where and how it originated is unclear. It is easy to imagine people equating flowers with women not men and so creating an insult, but why this particular flower? Vickery in The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore suggests that pansy is a corruption of nancy, a term for homosexual or effeminate men throughout the 1800s in England according to the Oxford English Dictionary. That use of  nancy in turn traces its roots back to atleast 1633 when the term was nan-boy.  

Pansy as an insult implying weakness seems quite ironic, considering no other plant in northern Colorado flowered December to February this year. From observation I'd say: tough as a pansy.


They're beautiful, they come in many colors and patterns, they are hardy and easy to grow, and very cold tolerant. Wonderful pansies.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Lehndorff, B. and L. Peters. 2007. Best Garden Plants for Colorado. Lone Pine Publishing International, Auburn, Washington.
Martin, L.C. 1987. Garden Flower Folklore. The Globe Pequot Press, Chester, Connecticut.
"nan, n.1". OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed February 09, 2018).
"nancy, n. and adj.". OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed February 09, 2018).
"nancy boy, n.". OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed February 09, 2018).
Vickery, R. 1995. Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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