Pansies are for those of us who are too impatient to wait for the flowers in our gardens to begin blooming. Of course, we need the help of flower growers and garden centers before we can pot up a few pansies to brighten our barren landscape. I became curious about the history of these early spring bloomers and was amazed to find out how ancient a flower they are.
An early forerunner of the pansy was the viola which was a common shade loving European flower in the fourth century B.C. Then someone noticed a very similar flower that was able to tolerate more sun. It has been suggested that it might have been a Frenchman who called it a ‘wild pansy’ because of the French word ‘pensee’ which means ‘ a thought’. Of course, I’m not sure what the Frenchman might of been thinking of when he looked at this bright and brave flower.
Shakespeare has the grieving Ophelia pass out flowers from a bouquet filled with metaphors – rosemary for remembrance, rue for adultery, sweet violet for innocence – and pansy for thoughts.
The wild pansy became known as Viola tricolor and both pansies and violas were grown for centuries before the British Lord Gambier and his gardener William Thompson began hybridizing violas in the early 1800s. It became one of the most popular flowers grown. Certainly we New Englanders love this early bloomer. Here in Heath pansies remain in bloom for most of the growing year if they are given a little shade.
Pansy hybrids continue to be made. The Texas A&M Aggie Horticulture website has wonderful information about the history of the pansy and a long list of hybrids.