Herb of the Year 2022 – Pansies, Violas and Violets
You know that spring has arrived when brightly colored pansies with their laughing faces start to appear in stores. They come in a variety colors, both solids and bicolors, so it is easy to find the right ones to fit in with your spring garden display or to provide a pop of contrasting color.
Pansies are cool season plants that grow best in the cool weather or spring or fall. As the temperatures warm into summer, the plants grow leggy and stop blooming. Grow your pansies in a pot so that you can move them into a shady corner as summer approaches to eke out a few more weeks of blossoms.
In the language of flowers, pansies symbolize loving feelings. They are also the birth flowers of February.
Pansies are newcomers to our gardens. They were developed in the nineteenth century in England by amateur gardeners who experimented with violas called heartsease. We call them Johnny Jump-Ups.
Heartsease were popular during the Tudor period in England. When Shakespeare refers to pansies in his plays, he is talking about demure Johnny Jump-Ups, not the large gaudy flowers that we call pansies today.
The name “pansy” derives from a French word pensée which means thought. In Tudor times, pansies were associated with thoughts.
Unlike modern pansies, Johnny Jump-Up flowers are tri-color, dark purple, light purple and yellow. Instead of the large blotch which is characteristic of modern pansies, Johnny Jump-Ups have narrow dark stripes which are called “nectar guides.” They “guide” pollinators to the nectar in the flowers and on their way in, they fertilize the flowers with pollen collected from other Johnny Jump-Ups.
The pollinated flowers produce numerous seeds which scatter all over your garden, producing a spectacular display the following spring. Johnny Jump-Ups, like their modern descendants, are also cool season plants, appearing in the spring and then petering out as the weather warms into summer.
The small lavender flowers that pop up seemingly out of nowhere in your lawn in the spring are blue violets, another relative of pansies and violas. They are one of our native plants and the host plant for several fritillary butterfly species. They are also eaten by wild turkeys, rabbits, deer, mourning doves, bobwhites, and white-footed mice.
The flowers and the leaves are eaten by humans as well. The leaves are high in Vitamins A and C and eaten raw. The flowers are often candied and used as edible garnishes.
Native Americans used blue violets to treat colds and headaches.
Yet another viola relative are the sweet violets, native to Europe and Asia. Their flowers are single colors, either a dark violet or white. They are the source of the violet scent used in the perfume industry and the source of violet syrup.
Sweet violets were once used to treat respiratory illness, insomnia and skin disorders.
The Viola family is a large one, encompassing flowers that are purely ornamental as well as flowers that are useful both to us and to wildlife.