For me, pansies (Viola x wittrockiana cvs.) signify hope. Whether I see their perky faces when they first arrive in garden centres in late March or early April, or peeking out from my snow-covered garden, I know that spring is truly on its way.
Though some are hardy to Zone 4 and considered perennials in warmer climes, these easy-to-grow, velvety-looking members of the violet family are generally treated as annuals or biennials in Canada. Although they can’t be counted on to return to the garden every year, they’ll often survive the first fall frost. Some varieties, such as Icicle pansies, can even be planted in the fall to overwinter and delight us in early spring.
Most of the more than 250 cultivars belong to various series consisting of several kinds that vary in colour but share such qualities as form, markings and hardiness. Pansies have single blooms, each with five petals, that fall into one of three main flower sizes: large (9 to 11 cm); medium (6 to 9 cm) and multiflora (2.5 to 6 cm).
Pansies come in almost all colours of the rainbow (even black) and can be multicoloured, having either a coloured centre or “face,” or pure-coloured with no face (clear). Many have a sweet scent, especially the yellow and blue varieties. Compact, ranging from 15 to 30 centimetres in both height and spread, they have heart-shaped leaves at their bases and oblong ones along their stems.
Sow seeds directly into the garden, about one centimetre deep, in late winter or early spring. Flats of seedlings are also readily available for purchase in garden centres in late March or early April.
Pansies prefer full to partial sun. They thrive in cool weather and will bloom any time the temperature is consistently above freezing, even in winter. A late snowfall or two will merely slow down their growth—they’ll bounce back in no time. Peak bloom is early spring to early summer. They’ll bolt and grow leggy in hot weather.
Wonderful on windowsills and in containers, pansies also look great in the border, the rock garden or even in mass plantings. They also make excellent, sweet-smelling, short-stemmed bouquets.