1 of 4
Larry Sagers
Few garden flowers have as wide of a color range as the pansy. They originated in continental Europe.

Picking and perfecting, pristine, purple pansies.

While it might seem like a tongue twister, that is exactly what gardeners, physicians and plant breeders have been doing for many centuries. Each year they improve the offerings and add even more flair to these workhorse plants.

Pansies have graced gardens for thousands of years. Records show the Greeks used these as medicinal plants as far back as the fourth century B.C. The flowers come from the Viola genus, which contains more than 500 species. They originated in continental Europe in alpine meadows and on rocky outcrops.

It was likely a Frenchman that named the plant pensee, meaning thought or remembrance. The plant became known as Viola tricolor, and it had two differences from violas: the pansy plant has one main stem and then branches out above the soil, and the blossoms are larger and more rounded.

In England, Lord Gambier and his gardener, William Thompson, began crossing various Viola species in the early 1800s. They selected flowers that had unusual colors or patterns as well as larger ones. Thompson is credited with discovering V. x Wittrockiana in 1839.

He named the cultivar "Medora," and it and its descendants became popular with European gardeners. The bloom had no dark lines on the flower, but it had colored areas on the lower petals called the "face." Other continued making more genetic improvements.

Companies in Germany, the United States and Japan have extensive programs that have introduced unusual bicolor designs and new colors, including shades of pink, rose or orange to the existing blues and violets of the old standbys. The blooms are no longer just "little purple pansies tinged with yellow-gold."

Goldsmith Seed, in Gilroy, Calif., is one company that is continually improving these plants. A recent visit to Goldmith's headquarters and display gardens showed many new pansy cultivars. Pansies are developed in series. A series is made up of closely related sizes and shapes but different colors or patterns. Each series differs in how many colors and patterns are available.

Pansy flowers show three basic color patterns. The first pattern is single, clear colors, such as yellow or blue; the second pattern is a single color having black lines called penciling radiating from the flower center; the third pattern is the most familiar, with a dark center called a "face."

Few garden flowers have as wide of a color range as the pansy. Look for anything from pure white to black and almost anything in between. More recent flower introductions include orange, bronze and mahogany.

In addition to selecting the color, select by blossom size. They come in different flower diameters of large (3 to 4 inches), medium (2 to 3 inches) and multiflora blossoms (1 to 2 inches).

The only practical option this time of year is to buy the plants. You are too late to plant from seed. Design your beds to include different sizes and colors to complement your beds. Plant your bulbs first and then place the pansies over the top.

Choose stocky plants with dark green foliage and good buds. Overgrown plants with too many flowers do not establish a good root system to take them through the winter. Remember, in our area, we are planting these for spring gardens, so select for quality, not size.

Pests are usually not much of a problem. Because we are overwintering these plants, most insects are not feeding, so controls are not needed. Diseases are a minor problem if you provide basic cultural needs.

In my experience, the major pansy problems include deer that often uproot the plants trying to get to the tulips underneath. To prevent that, cover the beds with nets or covers to keep deer from grazing.

Correct watering is critical. The plants can get root rot, so plant them in well-drained soil. They are also trying to establish a good root system in the fall, so don't let them get too dry. For those who are on secondary water, pay attention after you plant because your flower beds might need additional irrigation after the water is turned off for the season.

Avoid overfertilizing because the soft, succulent growth does not survive the winter well. Well prepared garden soil with plenty of decomposed organic matter is the key to good healthy growth.

Consider covering your beds with white fabric if your garden is in windy areas, or if you have difficulty getting your pansies to survive the winter. Put the covers on about Thanksgiving time and take them off in March before it gets too warm.

I consider pansies to be one of the best flowers for spring gardens. Get them planted this fall so you can reap your rewards next spring.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist at the Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.