Pansy, Viola tricolor

The Pansy or Pansy Violet is a cultivated garden flower. It is derived from the wildflower called the Heartsease or Johnny Jump Up (Viola tricolor), and is sometimes given the subspecies name Viola tricolor hortensis. However, many garden varieties are hybrids and are referred to as Viola × wittrockiana. The name “pansy” also appears as part of the common name of a number of wild flowers belonging, like the cultivated Pansy, to the violet genus Viola. One or two unrelated flowers such as the Pansy Monkeyflower also have “pansy” in their name.

Development of the Pansy

All across Northern Europe in the 1800s amateur gardeners crossed and re-crossed the wild Heartsease (Viola tricolor) with another native violet (V. lutea) and eventually one from the Near East (V. altaica), to produce a host of bigger, bolder pansies. As a result of extensive cross-breeding in the 1820s and 1830s, named varieties became very popular. By 1835, 400 varieties were available. By 1841 the pansy had become a favorite show plant.

With the explosion of greenhouse-building in the Victorian age (due in large part to the availability of affordable, low cost steel) the bold flowers familiar to modern gardeners appeared.

Pansies for Underplanting

Pansies are suitable for planting under shrubs; acting as living mulch, they inhibit the growth of weeds.


Pansies start blooming in the spring in the Northern Europe and the north of the United States, and in winter in warm climates. They are often cultivated with sweet alyssum as they produce a pleasing color combination and bloom at the same time.

Pansies are edible and have been used to dye mordanted fabric.

Breeding and Life Cycle

Pansies have been bred in a rainbow of colors, ranging from gold and orange through purple, violet, and a blue so deep as to be almost black. They are considered a hardy plant and grow quite well in sunny positions. Pansies are technically biennials that normally have two-year life cycles. The first year they only produce greenery; they bear flowers and seeds in their second year of growth, and afterwards die like annuals. Most gardeners buy biennials as packs of young plants from the garden center and plant them directly into the garden. Gardeners interested in rarer cultivars can plant seeds indoors in early November for plants ready in the spring. Regular deadheading can extend the blooming period. Under good conditions, pansies and viola are perennial plants, although they are generally treated as annual or biennial plants because they get very leggy and overgrown after a few years. The mature plant grows to 9 inches (23 cm) high, and the flowers are two to three inches (about 6 cm) in diameter.


The pansy has two top petals overlapping slightly, two side petals, beards where the three lower petals join the center of the flower, and a single bottom petal with a slight indentation.


Stem rot or Pansy sickness

The plant may collapse without warning in the middle of season. The foliage will flag and lose color. The flowers fade and shrivel prematurely and the stem will snap at the soil line if tugged slightly.

The plant is probably a total loss unless tufted.

Soil-borne fungus. Possible hazard with unsterilized animal manure.

Use Cheshunt or modern Benomyl fungicide prior to planting. Destroy (burn) infected plants.

Cheshunt Recipe

2 parts finely ground copper sulphate 11 parts fresh ammonium carbonate

Mix thoroughly and stand for 2 hours in sealed container. Dissolve 1 ounce (28 g) in a little hot water and add this to 2 gallons of cold water and use immediately.


Puccinia aegra fungal infection. Yellow-brown spots on leaves and stem. Spray with Benomyl or Sulphide of Potassium (1 ounce to 2 1/2 gallons)

Leaf Spot

Ramularia deflectens fungal infection. Dark spots on leaf margins followed by a white web covering the leaves. Associated with cool damp springs. Spray with fungicide.


Oidium fungal infection. Violet-gray powder on fringes and underside of leaves. Caused by stagnant air. Can be limited but not necessarily eliminated by spraying (especially leaf undersides).

Cucumber Mosaic Virus

Transmitted by aphids, this virus cuases a fine yellow veining on young leaves, as well as stunted growth and anomalous flowers. This virus can lay dormant and affect the entire plant and be passed to next generations and to other species. Prevention is key. Purchase healthy plants, use ph-balanced soil which is neither too damp not too dry. Soil should have balanced amounts of nitrogen, phosphate, potash. Eliminate other diseases which may weaken the plant.


Slugs and Snails

Lay sharp, gritty sand or clinker around plants. Top-dress soil with chipped bark. Clean area of leaves and foreign matter.


Spray with diluted soft soap (2 ounce per gallon)

Aphids are microscopic and lay eggs.

Name Origin and Significance

The pansy gets its name from the French word pensée meaning “thought”. It was so named because the flower resembles a human face and in August it nods forward as if deep in thought. Because of the origin of its name, the Pansy has long been a symbol of Freethought and has been used in the literature of the American Secular Union. Humanists like the symbol also, as the pansy’s current appearance was developed from the Heartsease by two centuries of intentional cross-breeding of wild plant hybrids. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) uses the pansy symbol extensively in its lapel pins and literature.