Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) are a cheerful and familiar face in the garden. Today they are generally differentiated from other commercially available violas by the large flower size (up to four inches across) with two overlapping upper petals, two side petals and a single lower petal with a slight beard at the center. Their emergence from a frenzy of crossing violas in the 19th century results in a great diversity of appearance and confusion as to where violas and sweetly scented violettas end and pansies begin.
The name pansy comes from the french pensé and reflects the meaning of "remembrance' in the 19th century language of flowers.The language of flowers, which assigns symbolic meanings to flowers and plants, was a craze in 18th and 19th-century France and England and later in America. Floral dictionaries flooded the market, ranging from simple indexes to elaborate texts with colorful images.
It was at this same moment in history that the landscape weed heartsease (Viola tricolor) took the fancy of the English nation and private gardeners began to cross breed it with other violas (particularly V. altaica, V. cornuta and V. lutea) for more charming appearances. Quickly, commercial growers joined the effort and a fever of hybridization resulted in 400 named pansy varieties by 1833. These efforts in England, France, Switzerland, Belgium and the United States increased the size of the flower head, shortened and strengthened the stem so no staking was needed, introduced new coloring and color combinations, and created the friendly blotch that is frequently seen in a pansy's center. That classic face blotch emerged by chance in a sport called "Medora" produced by James, Lord Gambier in the 1830's.
If starting pansies from seed, you can germinate indoors in a soiless mixture to reduce disease occurrence. Plant seeds with a very light covering of growing medium and keep just moist. Pansies germinate best in darkness at about 70 degrees F. Once germination takes place (10 to 20 days), move the seedlings to a indirectly sunny but cool place and continue to grow until a set of leaves emerges. Now move into greater sunlight and grow on indoors until there are three to four sets of leaves.
Once seedlings are ready to move outdoors, treat as you would a nursery bought plant. Plant individual pansy plants 6 inches apart in soil that is rich in organic matter and uncompacted for a depth of 6 inches.
Pansies, usually grown as annual plants, are available from early spring through autumn because of their tremendous hardiness and adaptability; but even these easy plants have preferred growing conditions. Ideally, place your pansies in nutrient-rich, well-drained soil in a position that gets full sun for at least half the day. Too much shade will reduce the number of blooms and deliver a leggier plant. These plants prefer cooler nights (around 40 degrees F.) and days around 60 degrees F. though newer hybrids are more heat tolerant; they will flourish in the early spring and autumn, but diminish in appearance and vigor when nights get warmer. You may want to replace pansies with heat loving annuals during the summer months.
Offer them plenty of water with a thorough weekly watering in the morning or early afternoon; they are small plants without deep roots and will suffer quickly during dry spells. A 5-10-5 fertilizer for flowering plants or a slow release fertilizer raked into the soil is helpful. Fertilize once shortly after planting and then every three weeks or so. Remove faded flowers to prevent energy expended on seed development and enhance additional blooms. Do not place pansies in the same garden spot or planter for more than 3 years in a row because a fungus disease (Pythium) builds up in the soil.