Come midwinter last year, thoughts of spring flowers began to float through my gardener’s brain. With my northern garden covered in ice and snow, I headed to the basement, set up the indoor grow lights and decided to plant one of the prettiest of spring flowers – pansies.
To be honest, I had an ulterior plan in mind for their sweet flower faces. After admiring them, my intention was to eat them. As a home cook, edible flowers are not usually on my menu, but every once in a while I crave pretty flowers served as a garnish on a salad or as a special decoration on a summery cake or tart. It’s not easy to find pesticide-free, edible flowers for sale. And even when they can be found, they’re often expensive so I decided to grow my own.
The plan was to transfer the young pansy plants from their artificial setting to the outdoors in early spring (they grow best at lower spring temperatures), where they would decorate pots and containers with bright pops of cheery color: deep gold, sapphire blue, royal purple, creamy white and other shades. I would snip off a few blooms as edibles. Even if a light frost occurred overnight, they’d be just fine.
As it turned out, growing pansy seeds during the dark days of winter became a good gardening project and also provided the chance to learn more about their biological cousins – violas and violets.
Pansy seeds can be notoriously slow to germinate, anywhere from one to three weeks. For busy gardeners, it may be tempting to just buy a flat of flowering pansies after the snow has melted. However, if you plan to eat them, depending on how they’re grown they may not be safe for consumption.
But there are rewards for any patient gardener who decides to start with a few seed packets. With luck, you’ll raise healthy pansy plants filled with young buds that are ready for the outdoors in about eight to ten weeks. There’s also the pride that comes from displaying homegrown showy annuals that started from seed.
Pansy seeds have a better chance of germination if they’re planted in well-drained, moist, humus-rich soil and placed in a cool dark place until they sprout. I kept it simple and used a commercial seed-starting mix, covering the seeds in soil and checking every couple of days to ensure the soil stayed moist.
The next step in this winter project, along with regular misting to keep roots moist but not wet, was to expose the young shoots to artificial light to duplicate outdoor growing conditions. It’s an easy project, even for inexperienced gardeners.
I added a general all-purpose organic fertilizer to stimulate growth. Avoid adding one that is nitrogen-heavy. Nitrogen is the first number in the three-digit sequence found on fertilizer labels. Try 5-10-5 to start, otherwise you’ll end up with lots of green leaves and few flowers. If you don’t add any fertilizer, you run the risk of growing plants with unhealthy yellow leaves.
Like all annuals, pansies should be hardened off when they’re ready to be transferred outside. Move them gradually until they adjust to the changing temperature and light conditions. Once they are outdoors, continue to keep the soil moist but not wet, deadhead regularly and fertilize as needed. In a sunny location, they are hard-working performers until later in summer when heat and humidity can cause droopy flowers and long, leggy stems. At that point, they can be pinched back and moved to a shadier, cooler location.
Pansies are relatively pest and disease free. Occasionally, they attract slugs, aphids and whitefly. Sometimes they’re prone to powdery mildew and stem rot, especially if overwatered. Generally though, they’re tough, hardy no-fuss plants.
It’s interesting that the hundreds of pansy varieties available nowadays are hybrids that originated from little European wildflowers – violas or Johnny-jump-ups. They were first bred in the early 1800s around Buckinghamshire, England, by several gardeners, including William Thompson. He crossed several viola species, including the blue Viola tricolor and a darker one from Russia. Pansy hybrids were created and their popularity increased. By 1850, many new strains of pansies were available in Europe and their popularity soon spread to North America.
Violas, with their nickel-sized flowers, often self-seed and fit beautifully into a rock garden or a woodland setting. They can also be started easily from seed as a winter project.
North American Wild Violets
Like pansies and violas, wild North American violets bloom in spring alongside wild ginger, buttercups, lady’s slippers and trilliums. Many gardeners dig them up because they can spread aggressively into lawns.
A few species of native violets will not invade lawns. These include the dog violet (Viola conspera), which prefers woodsy soil, and the downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens), which prefers light shade and well-drained soil. The tiny hookedspur violet (Viola adunca) thrives in dry, sandy soil and is ideal for a rock garden. You might have a difficult time finding these species in nurseries, but they can often be purchased from native plant growers.
While there is room for fancy cultivars in my suburban garden, North American wild flowers, including violets, are welcome because they attract bees and butterflies. Native violets are more than a nectar source; they are the host plant for fritillary butterflies. Fritillaries, with their checkered orange-and-black design, are sometimes confused with monarch butterflies because they look similar.
Without violets, there would be no fritillaries. That makes the North American violet a special plant for any nature-lover. Fritillary caterpillars hatch in fall and hibernate through winter. They awaken in spring when the violet plants begin to grow.
It’s interesting that the name pansy is derived from the French word pensée, which means thought. Whenever I eat fresh pansies in salads or candied pansies in desserts, my thought is that the little flowers are tasty, mildly mint-flavored and beautiful to behold.
It’s just a thought but really, maybe that’s what fritillaries think too as they munch their way through wild violets before flying off as pretty butterflies. Who knows?
Text and photos by Julianne Labreche
Julianne Labreche is a freelance writer and garden enthusiast who volunteers as a Master Gardener in Ottawa-Carleton.