Growing and Eating Pansies
Pansies (Viola wittrockiana) fully deserve their popularity as decorative plants. They are easy to grow, beautiful and come in a great variety of colours, so that anyone can find something to their taste. Breeders have achieved real perfection, particularly with large flowered varieties, that can be strikingly beautiful.
Love and Clarity of Thought
The history of pansies goes back to the time when modern varieties did not yet exist, and only their wild ancestor, Viola tricolor, was grown. It is a native of Europe and Asia, and was brought to America by European settlers. It’s flowers consist of five petals in three main colours: white, yellow and purple. It was used as a medicinal plant since antiquity, and in the Middle Ages it was grown in gardens, crystallized and added to salads, used in medicine and cosmetics. It figures in many Renaissance and Victorian literary works. Some of its popular names, such as ‘heart’s ease’ and ‘love-in-idleness’ suggest associations with love and magic. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare gives a recipe for making people to fall in love:
And maidens call it love-in-idleness…
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make a man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees (Act 2, Scene 1) .
Heart’s ease became a religious symbol as well. In old herbals it is given a name Herba Trinitatis (‘Herb of the Trinity’), inspired by three colours combined in its flower.
The English name ‘pansy’ derives from the French pensée, meaning ‘thought’. When French king Louis XV ennobled his physician, François Quesnay, he gave him a coat of arms that included three pansies and a Latin motto Propter cogitationem mentis (‘Due to the reasoning of the mind’). Quesnay, best known for his foundational work in economic theory, cured the heir to the throne of smallpox and was highly esteemed by the king who called him mon penseur (‘my thinker’). The same traditional associations with contemplation are evoked in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Ophelia says this are pansies for ‘clarity of thought’.
The Father and Mother of Modern Pansies
Pansies grown before the 19th century were little different form the wild Viola tricolor. A breakthrough happened in the early 19th century in England. The ‘father’ of the modern pansies was William Thompson, gardener of Lord Gambier, who lived at Iver near Uxbridge. From 1814 Thompson systematically carried on selection work for 30 years. By around 1830 he secured blotches, the dark markings of the three lower petals, that became a trademark of pansies. William Cuthbertson in Pansies, Violas and Violets (1910) cites Thompson writing that blotches had never been seen until one day he accidentally came across a flower that looked like ‘a miniature cat’s face steadfastly gazing’ at him. This variety, that Thompson named ‘Madora’, later produced a further improved cultivar ‘Victoria’ that became widely grown in Europe. These were the first hybrids that are today classed as Viola wittrockiana.
Pansies also had a mother: Mary Elizabeth Bennet. Cuthbertson reports that in Glenny’s Garden Almanack for 1885, George J. Henderson stated that about the year 1812 there lived at Walton-on-Thames a daughter of the Earl of Tankerville, and her favourite flower was the common pansy, which she cultivated over a large portion of her garden. By selecting seeds from the best specimens every year, she obtained varieties with remarkably fine flowers. It appears, therefore, that two growers turned their attention almost simultaneously to the improvement of the wild pansy.
Breeding continued in England, Scotland and France, and later in the USA, Germany and Japan. The contribution of Scottish growers was particularly outstanding – as a cool climate plant, pansy flourished in the north. It was in Scotland that large flowered varieties were first developed to perfection. By the end of the century a Scottish grower Charles Stuart introduced pansies without blotches, in a single colour.
In the USA pansies were tremendously popular in the late 19th century. Early in the century large flowered varieties with a diameter of flowers of up to 10-12cm were cultivated in Portland, Oregon. Japanese breeders developed F1 hybrids (fast growing and resistant to diseases) that constitute a large part of modern commercially grown pansies. At present France and Germany are at the forefront of the selection of new varieties – it is to German growers that we owe orchid pansies and pansies with wavy petals.
Pansies are perennial flowers, but after 2-3 years their flowers become smaller, so they are usually cultivated as annual or biannual plants. They grow well in almost any soil, but do best in fertile soil enriched with organic matter, such as compost, leafmould or well rotted manure. Pansies require an open sunny position – they do not develop well in shade. They are, however, cool weather plants that do best in autumn and spring. When the weather turns hot and dry, their flowers become smaller and disappear until autumn.
A classic way of growing pansies is to plant young plants (from seed sown in July) in pots or beds in September or early October. They will flower in autumn until it becomes too dark and cold, but the best flowering will be in spring. They are cold-tolerant and can be killed only by a very hard frost.
Pansies look particularly effective when planted en masse. I once planted with pansies in late September a vegetable bed of about 1.5 square meters. They flowered until mid November. By mid-February, however, they looked very battered, particularly since it snowed that year, and I was wondering whether it was worth keeping them any longer. In March, however, they entirely recovered, and in April and early May the bed was awash with colour with no effort on my part, because the plants developed good roots in autumn and took advantage of moist soil and sunshine. By the middle of May they started to run out of steam, but I was still sorry to remove them when the time came to plant tender vegetables at the end of May.
Eating Pansies in Salads
Pansies are edible flowers. Their velvety texture, slightly sweet taste and a strong scent make them ideal for eating fresh in salads. Smaller flowered varieties, that are closest to Viola tricolor, have the strongest smell. Pansies preserve some of the outstanding medicinal properties of their wild ancestor. Several studies of the nutritional values of pansies have given them high praise. RocioGonzález-Barrio et al., ‘Chemical composition of the edible flowers, pansy (Viola wittrockiana) and snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) as new sources of bioactive compounds’, Food Chemistry 252 (2018), conclude that pansy is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, and shows a high antioxidant activity.
This is an old technique used by Victorian and earlier cooks. Paint the pansies with a little lightly beaten egg white on the front and back of flowers using a fine (artist’s) brush. Sprinkle evenly both sides with caster sugar over the wet petals. Lay on a sheet of greaseproof paper and leave to dry for 2-3 hours until hard and crisp.
The picture shows a syllabub decorated with pansies. I followed a recipe for lemon syllabub from the BBC Good Food, but instead of lemon used sloes for a seasonal flavour. Sloes are perfectly ripe now in October, and the syllabub was absolutely delicious. Instead of caster sugar I used raw cane sugar, which is almost as fine, since it is difficult to get organic caster sugar. So you need:
300 ml of whipping cream
50g of organic fine cane sugar (or caster sugar)
50ml white wine
150ml sloe purée.
crystalized pansies to decorate
To make the purée
I collected a breakfast bowl of sloes from a nearby hedge and took out stones using a cherry pitter. It does not work as well with sloes as with cherries, but it either knocks out or at least dislodged the stone, making it quick to take out. I then liquidized the sloes in a blender adding 3-4tbs of water.
To make the syllabub
Whip the cream and sugar together until soft peaks form. Stir in the wine, then stir in the sloe purée. Spoon into glasses or bowls and decorate with pansies. If you are not sure how much purée to add, you can always add some and serve the rest as a sauce for diners to add themselves to their own taste.