Happy-faced pansies brighten up spring

There’s a reason the garden centers are full of pansy baskets this time of year.

Pansies love cool weather and their bright colors, and happy faces cheer up anyone who happens to come across them.

I love to put containers of pansies near the front door and other entrances to the house. It’s always pleasant to arrive home after a long day and find these flowers greeting me.

Pansies are members of the plant family Violaceae and are of the genus Viola. Whenever I see cultivated pansies planted in containers or along sidewalks, I know that it won’t be long before I see their descendants, purple and lavender wild violets, covering the lawn area at the back of our property. Wild violets are very persistent and make their way into our cultivated flower beds where they set up housekeeping and, like most weeds, are difficult to eliminate totally. Sometimes, depending on where they are, I just leave them there. After all, they are flowers.

Pansies are hybridized versions of these wild violets. The plants are biennials, which means during their first year of growth, they are strictly leaves. It is the second season that the plant produces flowers and ultimately seeds.

Unlike wild violets, hybrid pansies are not as hardy in our area, so we tend to treat them as annuals. To add to the confusion, these plants are perennials in areas south of us, but even there they are short-lived and have to be replanted every few years.

Pansies don’t like hot weather, so we plant them now and when the temperatures rise in mid-June, they are usually replaced with heat-loving flowers. But for those few short months in spring, their bright faces cheer us up and remind us that winter is finally over.

Like their wild counterparts, hybrid pansies are edible. Toss them in salads or use them to decorate cupcakes.

Some gardeners like to mix pansies with other flowers, such as tulips or daffodils, but I like to crowd them into containers by themselves and let them be the center of attention. They can be either all one color (called clear-faced pansies), bi-colored, or many shades of red, pink, purple, lavender, yellow, white and many shades in between. Hybrid pansies are larger than their violet cousins and new varieties are being cultivated all the time. Some sources say there are more than 300 varieties of pansies and as more and more people buy them, growers work on ways to keep them going longer in summer by trying to come up with heat-tolerant varieties.

Although the flowers seem fragile, the plants are quite tough. If planted in a protected area, they may survive the summer heat and bloom again when the temperatures start to cool in late summer. I’ve even had some plants last a couple years.

It is believed that the pansy we know today is a plant that has evolved from the tricolor violet we see growing wild. The plant is said to have originated in central Europe but it is believed that as far back as the 4th century B.C., pansies were used medicinally as a remedy for respiratory problems.

Plant pansies where they will get full sun to partial shade. Too much shade and the plants will get weak and spindly and won’t flower as well. They make excellent border plants, although they shouldn’t be planted in the same place more than three years in a row to avoid a soil-borne fungal disease.

If you want to grow pansies from seeds, they would need to be started indoors early, around January or February, but seeds can be sown directly into the garden in July for fall blooming plants. After the seedlings emerge, thin them to about an inch apart and continue to thin them as they grow until the plants are about 7 to 12 inches apart. Thinnings can be transplanted into other areas of the garden or into containers and windowboxes.

Pansies don’t like to be dry but they don’t like to be too wet either. Don’t let young plants dry out completely. If the plants are in containers, be sure to provide adequate drainage holes.