What is the easiest way to tell the difference between our beloved pansies and violas? Their size of course! As the idiom “shrinking violet” suggests, violas are the smaller of these two beauties although it’s the Victorian meaning for viola which refers to “modesty” which gives a little more context to the idiom’s origin.
Pansy, on the other hand, means “to think” and is almost always referred to in the context of love, which is so appropriate given how gorgeous they are! Literature suggests this is from Victorian references but also from French origin. The pansy flower has a striking likeness to a human face and has a tendency to bow forward, in deep thought in late summer giving it ample claim to its name, derived from the French word pensée, meaning “thought”.
From literature and arts to folklore and mythology, pansies and violas have a history and story that could fill an entire book. Shakespeare used references to both pansies and violas in both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream while the ancient Greeks used violas in love potions, thinking it to be a symbol of love and fertility.
Did you know that pansies were apparently used for fortune telling in the day of King Arthur to give the Knights of the Round Table secret signs? It is written that they would look at how many and the orientation of the lines on the petals to determine their fates. Four lines signified hope, seven indicated loyalty in love, eight showed fickleness, and nine forewarned a changing of heart while eleven was sadly about disappointment and an early grave. If the lines were thick and slanting left, life was due to be troublesome while right slanting lines signified wealth and success until death. Clearly four or seven right slanting lines was what every knight dreamt of!
When the colour starts to drain away from your garden in the last month of autumn, you’ll find solace in the pretty faces of both pansies and violas, knowing they’ll be there to greet you and brighten every winter morning.
Pansies will withstand more severe cold than violas, thawing and bobbing around by mid-morning to show that it’s safe to climb out of bed on the weekends.
Plant these floriferous little angels in either a sunny or partially shaded area but keep in mind that violas will perform better than pansies do with more shade, so plan accordingly. Sometimes we’re blessed with a warmer winter than is naturally ideal and while we might enjoy it, our pansies and violas are not too comfortable with the unwanted underfloor heating.
If that happens, make sure to throw a nice thick blanket of mulch over the soil around them to help keep their feet cool and their faces smiling.
To get the best from your blooms you should deadhead them as and when you can and remember that pansies are a little claustrophobic and may retaliate if you plant them too close to each other by developing diseases.
Give them a good solid watering once a week unless Mother Nature is being liberal with her wetting ceremonies but remember, it’s chilly out, and you’d not like it very much if someone wet your clothes and left you outside, so water the surrounding soil, avoiding their leaves.
Whether planting these splendid little faces in a bed, a border, a pot, in hanging baskets, in small or large groups, in one solid block of colour or a rainbow of gold, white, purple, red, black and orange … your garden will be transformed into a happier place this winter.
You’ll be hard pressed to resist them once you set foot in your local accredited garden centre.