Pansies – It makes you think! by Andrew Ormerod

The word pansy originated from the French word penser, which means to think.

030701 Selected 1830's pansies plane yellow face blue back petals

The Pansy – “It is inexpensive, it is easily managed, and it is beautiful”. James Simkins (1889)
In the beginning
The Garden Pansy is descended from the wild pansy or heart’s ease (Viola tricolour) with the help of other species. Wild heart’s-ease were celebrated by poets and writers, they were cultivated initially for their medicinal properties.

‘The garden’s gem’
Heart’s-ease, like a gallant bold,
In his cloth of purple and gold”
Leigh Hunt

Names for the plant included:-
The name pansy was derived from pensee “Thought”, (i.e. “forget me not”)
“Love in Idleness”, “Three smirking faces under one hood”.

Various derivations arose from this, “Pretie Pawnse” – Spencer; “Panze” – Ben Johnson;  “Pancyes” 16th century references; “Pances or Heart’s-ease” 16th century references.  “Pansy” became the term used from 17th century

The beginning of cultivation
Children were among the first to realise the potential of heartsease Viola tricolor. Lady Mary Bennet the young daughter of the Earl of Tankerville was the first to collect wild heart’s ease. She planted the range of forms in a heart-shaped bed at the family summer residence at Walton on Thames in about 1810, their gardener William Richardson saved seed of the more interesting types.

Pansies have emerged as one of the most popular bedding plants for cool seasons of the year and have become popular in milder climates for fall planting. Although cheap to buy as plants, they are the most valuable flower seed crop in the world.

Nearby, William Thompson, gardener to Admiral Lord Gambier at Iver, Bucks started cultivation and hybridizing wild and cultivated pansies from 1813 onwards. Initially he used yellow and white forms of the common heart’s ease (stated as Viola lutea in Gender (1958)). He selected the best forms over many years, initially there were few changes in size from the wild heart’s ease. Both Richardson and Thompson used a blue violet to increase the colour range (possibly Viola corsica)

Viola tricolor
The Garden Pansy is descended from the wild pansy or heart’s ease (Viola tricolor) with the help of other species. Wild Viola tricolor shows natural variation in flower colour, initially, different colour variants were collected and the best forms were propagated.

Rapid developments in the 1830’s
By 1833 nearly 200 were offered for sale. Diversity of colour and duration of flowering season from May to September with care were a major attraction. Pansies with larger flowers began to develop significantly between 1835 and 1840.

To find pansies similar to the earliest types it is necessary to reselect plants without the characteristic faces.  Some pansies without the face can be found in a Pansy strain called ‘Jolly Joker’ which resemble the paintings of cultivars from the 1830’s.  It is difficult to find many pansy varieties over 100 years old, they have to be maintained by vegetative propagation, or maintained by cross pollinating plants with very similar flowering characteristics.

Circa 1839/1840 the appearance of the characteristic Cat’s Face or 3 blotches on the lower petals and the development of show pansies

William Thompson found by chance the first blotched pansy growing among heathers which he named “Madora”. (It was peeping out of the heather like a cats face). The blotches were caused by an extension of the pigmented stripes that act as honey guides attracting pollinating insects to the centre of the flowers. Rapidly other blotched pansies were produced and this lead to the establishment of the Hammersmith Heartease Society and Scottish Pansy Society. These societies lay down strict rules governing Show Pansies.

Show pansies – one of the Florist’s flowers

In the 1840’s there was great interest in developing ‘show pansies’ . Very strict rules governed what flower forms were acceptable.

Flower shape, they had to almost circular of good texture almost flat flowers well defined colours, that do not run into each others as rays, lines or streaks.

Flower colours – two colour patterns developed. ‘Selfs’ with uniform colour except for the yellow eye and dark blotches on lighter coloured flowers. ‘Belted’ with a clear coloured border on the middle and lower petals surrounding a yellow or white ground surrounding dark blotches.

1850’s Fancy pansies

There was a backlash against the show pansy by the 1860’s because the rules limited the types that could develop. The French and Belgium florists were not limited by the strict rules and produced a diversity of types, “French types” were reintroduced into Britain by the Nursery Man John Salt in 1848 and became known as “Fancy Pansies” although they didn’t become popular for another 10 years. They tended to have larger flowers than show pansies and are characterised by very large blotches on the three lower petals.

Two flower colour types exist.  Self-coloured, three large blotches, the rest of the petals are a uniform colour.  Belted types where the edge of petals are laced with a distinct colour sometime containing a second colour. The body of the top petals can be different from the blotches but must have laced edges like the lower petals.
Both types are vegetatively propagated to maintain the strict criteria governing flower forms.

Open pollinated seed strains
Seed strains offered the possibility of cheap and colourful bedding plants, some strains are over 100 years old. The best strains were based on show and fancy pansies as parents. The quality of seed strains depends on the rigour of selection of plants for seed production. Unfortunately some old seed strains declined over time due to lack of rigour. Selected plants were grouped together isolated by distance from other pansies and are naturally pollinated by insects.

Allot of the best were originally derived from Fancy and show pansies. Many seedsmen developed their own strains, some are better known than others. Some of the strains have a very long pedigree. Successful maintenance of seed strain’s purity from year to year relied on careful selection of groups of plants that fit the type and vigorous roughing of ‘off types’. Seed production at its simplest relies on open pollination of selected groups of plants kept in isolation by distance from other pansies or by growing the plants in glasshouses/polytunnels.

French or Trimardeau pansies – One of the earliest seed strains grown for garden rather than for the show bench.  They had immense blooms and beautiful divers colours. Market florists raised huge quantities with roots of each plants wrapped in moss, sold with 1-2 flowers showing.

Some of the Roggli Swiss Giant strains, raised near the Swiss and German border, are about 100 years old. The genuine Roggli strains are maintained with great care from year to year. Many Swiss Giant pansies have been raised for seed by nurseries in the UK in many cases with less care leading to a poorer quality end product.  Two well-regarded British strains are Englemann’s Giant raised in the 1920’s – almost by accident and J.W. Boyce’s Soham Surprise strain. Mr Englemann a nurseryman based in East Anglia

Hybrid Seed strains
F1 hybrid pansy seed is maintained by cross pollinating two inbred parent lines. It is worth using people to carry out extensive hand pollination in insect proofed greenhouses because the seed crop is a high value product. One method of ensuring that insects do not visit flowers that have been cross pollinated is to remove the lower petal, which they use as a platform.

Universal pansies.
In 1974 results of a large trial of traditional open pollinated pansies revealed that only a few were able to flower under short day conditions. Several rounds of self-pollination and selection of early flowering types followed. Selected plants were cross-pollinated to make hybrids which were tested for hardiness and ability to flower in the winter. They have been improved over the years with selections for ability to flower in containers as well as bedding plants and an increase in colour choice. One characteristic marking out modern pansies compared to older ones is shorter flowering stems.  The best hybrids were produced in commercial quantities and launched in 1979.

Black Pansies
Black is a highly desirable colour, but perfect black is very difficult to breed for often purple or yellow colours are visible on the back of black flowers for example. Some strains have been in existence for more than 100 years.

Difference between pansies and violets
Pansies and violas are cousins with a common ancestor: johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor). Violas are perennials and more compact compared to pansies, which are treated as annuals. Violas were classed at one stage as ‘Tufted Pansy’s.

I would like to acknowledge the help of John Snocken who holds the National Collection of Florists Violas and Pansies. John is involved in conserving old varieties and breeding new varieties in similar colours to those produced in the nineteenth century but with better growth habits. He is chairman of the National Viola and Pansy Society, founded in 1914, originally as a ‘florist’ society dealing with show pansies and violets. Exhibitions of Show Pansies, Fancy Pansies and Exhibit Violas are still carried out in the traditional ‘florists’ way on boards and in vases and baskets, but members of the society are interested in a wider range of issues to do with the genus Viola. I would also like to acknowledge the help of Morris May who provided old floras that enabled us to attempt to reselect pansies of the 1830’s

First published in the Eden Friend’s magazine

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013


About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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One Response to Pansies – It makes you think! by Andrew Ormerod

  1. graham says:

    The current chairman of the National Viola and Pansy Society is Graham Wells..
    John Snocken is a life member of this Society and judges our National Show each year
    Any person wishing to join The NVPS shoulld out the website.
    It is our Centenary year and The RHS at Wisley will be holding a display on the 30th May 1st June. in their gardens display area.

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