Extension Educator, Horticulture
It's hard to be sad when you go eye-to-eye with a pansy. They hold their smiling faces high with just the right tilt of their flowery heads to appear animated. They are the perfect flower to herald in spring. Few plants smile through the roller coaster ride of spring weather in Illinois. In addition few flowers are as versatile. They are equally wondrous in the garden, in the woods or on the dinner plate.
Pansies represent just one of the over 500 different violet species in the Viola genus. Some of the most beautiful of our native plants are violets. I once had a "wow" moment when I came face-to-face with a flock of birdfoot violets growing on a hillside at Starved Rock State Park. Blue violet is the state flower of Illinois. Violets can be found blooming March through May in every county in Illinois. Violets are also important larval hosts for fascinating Fritillary butterflies.
Before their rise to fame in the gardening world, violets had been praised for hundreds of years in literature, medicine, and art. They have long been associated with love and were commonly used in love potions. The heart-shaped leaves were said to cure a broken heart. The leaves and flowers are edible and can dress up a lettuce salad. Just don't be surprised if your desire has more to do with salad dressing than amorous undressing.
Garden pansies and violas come in just about every color and color combination. They may be a single clear color such as blue or yellow. The single color might also have lines radiating from the center. Or the flowers can be multicolored with a face-like dark blotch.
Even though they are all in the Viola genus, gardeners generally lump violets into two groups. The first group includes true violets such as Tufted violet, Viola cornuta and Sweet violet, Viola odorata which are perennial. Sweet violet is the common purple violet in our yards and gardens. The second group of pansies and violas gets the most press.
Sweet little violas include Johnny-jump-ups, Viola tricolor. Owing to their long connection with love they are also known by hundreds of common names including love-in-idleness, call-me-to-you, tickle-my-fancy, kiss-her-in-the-pantry, jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, and heartsease. No two Johnnies look the same. The flowers have five multicolored petals of violet, white, and yellow with interesting pencil lines or whiskers. The delicate annual plants grow about 6-10 inches tall. Similar to most pansies and violas the stems stretch out as they age. However, they do reseed themselves in a pleasant "what a nice surprise" way and not in an "eeek it's taken over" way. Also Johnny-jump-up is the longest word found in abridged dictionaries that can be typed using only the fingers of the right hand.
Today's garden pansies and violas are hybrids of several viola species. The terms pansies and violas are thrown around wildly. Botanically they are all in the same species, Viola x wittrockiana. Horticulturally those with 1-2 inch diameter flowers are called violas. Those with flowers over 2 inches in diameter are pansies. Even though violas are smaller, they tend to bear more flowers.
They all prefer cool weather and quickly languish as the weather warms consistently above 75 degrees F. Much breeding has occurred to produce not only different flower colors and combinations, but also better weather tolerance. The smaller flowered cultivars tend to win the weather battles. There are hundreds of pansy cultivars generally marketed as series of plants with different flower colors but similar growth characteristics. Popular small flowered series include Maxim and Ultima.
With this past cold snap pansies may have frozen solid, but don't lose heart. Any flowers existing during the freeze will quickly die, but the plants should live to smile again.