Growing pansy from seed

All About Pansies

Can I Grow Pansies in My Garden?

History of Pansy Flowers

The history of the modern pansy begins with a small European wildflower, Viola tricolor, commonly known as Johnny-jump-up. This was Shakespeare’s ‘little western flower, / Before milk white, now purple with love’s wound, / And maidens call it love-in-idleness.’ In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the juice of ‘love-in-idleness’ is used by Oberon, king of the fairies, to trick Queen Titania into falling in love with a donkey. Pansies also appear among Ophelia’s flowers in Hamlet: ‘…and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.’
Like the modern hybrids we grow today, V. tricolor has five rounded petals arranged somewhat like a butterfly, but the blooms are smaller, usually less than an inch wide. Their color is either deep purple or some combination of purple, yellow, and white. Another old name, ‘herb of trinity,’ was inspired by the tricolored types.
Wild pansies have a strong tendency (common among violet family members) to form natural hybrids. Their appearance is also greatly affected by growing conditions resulting in a lot of variation among the species. Taking advantage of these traits, a group of aristocratic flower-fanciers began experimenting with V. tricolor in the early 1800s, cross-breeding it with wild relatives like the yellow violet (V. lutea) and alpine violet (V. altaica).

The first pansy hybrids with dark central blotches (as opposed to just lines) appeared in 1814, and by 1835 there were 400 named varieties on the market-‘beautiful, flat, symmetrical, velvet-like flowers, more than two inches in diameter, magnificently and variously coloured.’ These are the words of Charles Darwin, who took a keen interest in the cross-fertilization of plants. He was working on his theory of natural selection at the time, and conducting his own experiments with pansies and other flowers, keeping detailed records of the various traits that arose through many generations.
Large, exotically patterned pansies became all the rage in Europe, where they were displayed at floral exhibitions and painted by the leading artists of the day. But many of these Victorian hothouse oddities proved too temperamental for the average gardener, and it wasn’t long before breeders began working on hardiness as well as color and form. Pansies today, although equally beautiful and variable, are much better suited to the home garden.

How Do I Cultivate Pansies?

Pansies perform best in cooler weather, and are therefore usually planted in spring or fall. They like rich, well-drained soil high in organic matter, and full sun or partial shade. (Shade is especially beneficial south of Zone 7 where the hot afternoon sun will shut down flower production.)

Annual Flower Gardening Tips

Tips For Growing Pansies

Pansies will flower even more profusely and longer if spent flower heads are removed. During the hottest months, cut the plants back and mulch to conserve moisture. When cooler weather returns in the fall pansies will reward you with a second show of blooms.
Because they are very hardy, pansy plants can be set out at least a month before the frost-free date in your area. After a week or so of hardening off, the plants can be put into their growing beds and left outside. Where winters are mild, fall-planted pansies will survive and rebloom magnificently in the spring. A layer of straw mulch applied as soon as temperatures fall below freezing will protect the pansy plants through colder winters.

Common Pansy Insects & Diseases

Should I Grow Pansy Seeds Or Plants?

Pansies grow easily from seed but take a long time to mature, so they should be started early indoors about 10 to 12 weeks before the last frost date. Press pansy seeds into the surface of the soil and cover to their thickness, as darkness is required for germination. Covering the pots with black plastic is a good idea. Keep the planting medium damp, and once the seeds have sprouted, (about 14 days at 70 degrees F.) move them to a greenhouse or a setup like Burpee’s Glow ‘n Grow Light Garden. A week or so before transplanting into the garden, harden the pansy seedlings off by putting them in a cold frame or a sheltered spot outdoors during the day.
Many gardeners prefer the convenience of bedding plants, and Burpee makes it easy with garden-ready 12-packs of pansy varieties like ‘Autumn Blaze’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Maxim Hybrid Mix’, and ‘Antique Rose’. The seedlings should be planted six to eight inches apart and watered frequently until they are well established.

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PHOTO: Jessica Walliserby Jessica Walliser February 15, 2018

The common garden pansy (Viola x wittrockiana) is a descendant of the viola. Breeders have been “playing” with pansies for generations, selectively breeding them for larger flowers, bolder colors, and improved cold hardiness and heat tolerance. Today’s pansies bear colorful, velvet-like flowers during the cool temperatures of spring and fall. You might think that the best way to grow pansies is by purchasing transplants from the nursery, but starting pansies from seed is easy and fun. Plus, it’s a great way to exercise your green thumb during the cold winter months.

Pansy Particulars

Pansies are cool-weather flowers that tend to go dormant during hot summer weather. That’s why you only see them on the shelf at the garden center in the very early spring or late in the autumn. Their blousy blooms come in a stunning array of colors, from purple and orange bicolored varieties, to pink, lavender, yellow and even black. As with vegetables, starting pansies from seed will enable you to grow a greater diversity of varieties; certainly more than you’ll ever find at your local nursery.

Because pansies don’t thrive in summer’s heat, to prolong their bloom time, plant them where they’ll receive afternoon shade. This is especially important in southern climates. But, even if they die back when summer arrives, don’t give up on pansies. Simply cut the plants back to the ground and more often than not, they’ll resprout when the cooler weather of fall arrives.

Depending on the variety, pansies can have incredible winter hardiness, with some varieties easily overwintering as far north as USDA zone 5.

Starting Pansies From Seed

Pansies are quite easy to grow from seed, though they take a good bit of time to germinate and they’re fairly slow growers. Patient gardeners are rewarded, however, with many weeks of cheery pansy blooms.

When starting pansies from seed, you’ll want to begin the task about 10 to 12 weeks before your last spring frost is expected. Here in Pennsylvania, I begin starting pansies from seed anytime from mid January to mid February.

Use new or sterilized seeding flats filled with high-quality seed-starting potting mix to start pansy seeds. You won’t need grow lights until after the seedlings germinate. Pansy seeds require complete darkness to germinate, so after planting the seeds about 1/6″ deep in seeding flats, be sure to cover the seed flats with a black plastic garbage bag to block all light. Place the seed tray on a seedling heat mat to raise the soil temperature a few degrees and improve germination rates and speed.

Even with a heat mat in place, pansy seeds take about two weeks to germinate. Starting pansies from seed is certainly an exercise in patience, but starting at the 10 day mark, begin peeking inside the black plastic bag every day for signs of seedling emergence.

Once you spy a few seedlings poking out of the soil, it’s time to remove the bag and place the flats under grow lights. Run the lights for 18 to 20 hours per day and make sure your pansy seedlings stay well watered, but don’t allow the flats to become water logged.

As soon as your pansy seedlings develop their first set of true leaves, it’s time to transplant them into cell packs or small nursery pots. Use a standard potting mix for this. You can also begin to fertilize the seedlings at this time, using an organic liquid fertilizer, such as fish hydroslate or kelp emulsion, diluted to half of the recommended strength. Fertilize every week.

Hardening Off Pansy Transplants

When early spring arrives, it’s time to more your pansies outdoors. But take your time with this process. Like all other aspects of starting pansies from seed, this should not be rushed. To properly harden off pansy transplants, move them outdoors to a sheltered location for a few hours every day, gradually increasing the amount of time they spend outside and the intensity of light they receive over the course of a week or two. Once your seedlings are outdoors full-time, it’s time to transplant them out into the garden.

Starting pansies from seed is fun and fulfilling. These festive little plants make a great addition to beds, borders, containers and window boxes.


  • Get growing
  • Flowers
  • Pansies

(Viola X Wittrockiana)

Pansies are hardy annuals that are easy to grow, need very little care and work well in borders, pots or containers. They have large hardy blooms and come in a range of bright colours.

Pansies are ideal for creating temporary spring displays in beds or containers. They are pretty much always disease and pest free and will give a long display of brilliant colours.

Pansies and violas are the same family and the names are often used interchangeably. Violas are very similar plants just with smaller flowers and are even hardier in winter. They work great together in pots.

Growing pansies from seed

  • Pansies are not difficult to grow from seeds
  • For autumn planting to flower in the Spring, seed can be sown any time from May to July. Seedlings should be ready for planting in September
  • Pansy seeds can be started indoors 6-8 weeks before transplanting them
  • Plant seeds in winter for early spring and summer flowering. Plant as early as possible in winter to help establish and grow the root system that’s so critical to winter hardiness
  • Plant seeds in the summer for winter flowering

Growing pansies from seedlings

You can also buy seedlings in bedding packs from your local garden centre anytime from autumn to spring. There are both winter and spring varieties of pansies.

When buying pansies as bedding packs or seedlings, choose plants that are compact with dark green leaves. Avoid the temptation to buy the plants that are already flowering. You’ll have better luck if you choose the smaller plants that are just starting to have buds or blooms and you’ll get more flowers from them in the long run.

Where should it be grown?

  • Pansies are not fussy plants and will grow best in rich soil with steady moisture, partial sun and appreciate some fertiliser.
  • Pansies flower best in full sun but don’t tolerate heat which is why they thrive in spring and autumn. Varieties with medium-size flowers fair better over winter than large-flowered types.
  • Plant pansies 6-8 inches apart.

Any other additional tips.

  • Pansies do not like heat and watering them regularly will help them last longer and they may begin blooming again into the autumn. Ensure good drainage.
  • Encourage new growth and blooms by deadheading faded blooms and any fruit.
  • Pansies will give their best with regular deadheading. It’s not essential but it will encourage new blooms. So, as soon as the flowers fade simply pinch them off between your thumb and forefinger.
  • Watch out for the soil around winter pansies getting too wet as you may end up with root rot.

So I kind of have a mini obsession with pansies. I like to plant a new batch of them in my garden every fall. At our last house I had a whole hillside of them and I LOVED watching them break through the soil every spring and fall. If you’ve never grown pansies before, you should give them a go. They are super easy to grow and instead of paying $1-2 per plant, you can grow an entire flat of them for less than $2.00.

How to Grow Pansies from Seed:

Pansies are a cold-hardy brightly colored flower and although they are typically annuals, here in the Northwest they are treated as perennials. In other parts of the United States they will also will overwinter in zones as cold as zone 4. Plus over time, they spread. Which if you ask me is a total bonus.

Plant pansy seeds outside in groups of 4 every 4″-6″ {or per seed pot if starting indoors in the refrigerator like I do}.

Although pansies are easy to grow, they seem to germinate a little better if they are started in moistened soil in the refrigerator for 5-7 days to break the seeds dormancy. Pansy seed requires darkness to germinate but once the seedlings pop though the soil I then place them under grow lights.

Plant the seeds about 1/8″ deep and then thin the seedlings to 1 plant every 4″-6″ once they are about 1″ tall. I like to to start my pansy seeds indoors about 6-8 weeks before transplanting outside. Pansies like part sun to shade conditions so keep that in mind when you are planting them.


Pansy Seedlings – Knowledgebase Question

Pansy seeds do germinate best in the dark with a soil temperature of 60-70 degrees. I go so far as to cover the seed flats with newspaper until the seeds germinate–this helps exclude light and holds in soil moisture. They should also be sown very shallowly–just barely cover the seeds with fine soil.
I think the confusion about their light requirements comes from the fact that pansies need darkness to germinate–but once they are germinated they need light to grow. So check the pots every day, and as soon as you see sprouts, put the pots under fluorescent lights.
Regarding watering, try bottom watering. You never want your soil to dry out, but it is even worse to have it get soggy. You are looking for lightly moist. When the soil looks like it is beginning to dry out (often you can tell because the surface appears a lighter color) set the pots in a shallow tray of warm water. When the surface of the soil is moist (dark in color) then remove from the tray and allow to drain.
Out in the garden, pansies can take part shade in hot regions–in your region try to give them very light shade to full sun for best flowering. They prefer cooler weather, so you may find that they flower best in spring and fall, with fewer flowers in the heat of mid-summer.
Seeds for hardy primroses will germinate better if chilled in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 weeks. Greenhouse varieties don’t need this chilling. Primroses need light to germinate, so don’t cover the seeds. They also prefer cool soil conditions (60-70F) and can take quite some time to germinate, usually 21 to 40 days, but up to 80 days is not uncommon.
Good luck!

Pansies rank way up there on my top ten list of favorite annual plants. In the deep south, they can be planted in September for nearly continuous color all the way until the next May or June, which makes them a very popular fall and winter flower. In the harsher winter climates, there are pansies that will survive in temperatures as low as 15 degrees if mulched adequately. They may fade briefly during very cold weather, but as soon as a warm spell comes along they will cheerfully start blooming profusely again.

Pansies are the largest members of the Viola family, which includes Violas, Violets, and Johnny-Jump-Ups. They an be found in many colors, including yellow white, rose, blue, purple, white, and wine. They provide low color throughout the winter months and are perfect for adding cheer to walkways, containers, and borders when not much else will bloom there. They make excellent companions for many of the spring bulbs, such as tulips, iris, and daffodils, and are good rock garden plants. In days past, Pansies sported the familiar “faces” on their petals, but breeding has eliminated this characteristic in some of the newer cultivars. Personally, I like the faces because they provide something of a tapestry effect when used in mass plantings.

Pansies can be propagated by seed, cuttings, or division. When taking cuttings, do it in late summer or fall and cut just below the stem joint. Plant in fertile soil and keep moist. Division should be done in spring or fall. Choose a sturdy plant, and divide into several pieces, being sure to leave some root attached to each one.

Pansies prefer rich, moist, well drained soil and full sun. They will start to get leggy when the weather warms, and they can be moved to a shady, cool location for the duration if you want to save them for re-planting in the fall. They self seed rather readily, and some cultivars emit a light fragrance when brushed.

The uses for Pansies are varied. They make excellent cut flowers when used in a short vase. I saw a suggestion recently that said to put the cut flowers in cool water in a cool place for a few hours before arranging, so that the stems will become stiffer and easier to manipulate. The flowers can also be floated in a shallow bowl for an interesting mosaic-like effect.

The flowers of Pansies are edible, and have a minty taste. They can be candied (see Violets for instructions) and used on cakes and other confections, and are also increasing in popularity as colorful additions to green salads. The flowers can be floated in a punch bowl for a decorative touch, and used to scent a sugar bowl. Pansy flowers will also color and flavor vinegars and add flavor to custards.

Directly above and to the right are two images of Johnny Jump Ups, a close relative of the Pansy with the same growing requirements. Click on the image to see the full-sized picture.

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With their almost endless variety of colors from white to blue and purple to orange, yellow and red, as well as the long-flowering period, garden pansies (Viola) are among the classics in public and private gardens. Especially in the spring, they provide first-class dash of colors in the usually dreary garden. However, they are also one of the last plants that decorate front doors and balconies in late autumn.

Plant Profile

  • Plant family: Violaceae
  • Genus: Viola
  • Type: Garden Pansy (Viola wittrockiana)
  • Common names: “Stepmother”
  • Hybrid of different viola species
  • Two-year-old, often also perennial plant
  • Height: up to about 20 cm
  • Flowering period from April to October
  • five-petaled in different colors and shapes
  • wintergreen in temperate zones

The versatile garden pansies are with their bright blossoms heralds of spring. Together with tulips, hyacinths and other spring blooms we can hardly imagine our gardens without them. But they also decorate flower beds, borders and flower boxes during the summer.

When the gardening year draws to an end, next to Erica and cyclamen still stand the violets, which herald the start of the cold season and bloom in temperate zones even throughout the whole winter. All in all, the delicate viola wittrockiana is a real all-rounder, which is universally applicable and still remains robust and blooming.

As early as 1896, the Swedish botanist Veit Brecher Wittrock described this type of viola. However, since it was a cross with other species, he did not give it a name. This happened by two biologists from the botanical garden of the University of Rostock in 2007. Therefore, the correct name of the plant is actually Viola wittrockiana GAMS EX NAUENBURG & BUTTLER. Garden pansy is a cross of mountain pansy(Viola lutea) with altai pansy (viola altaica) and viola tricolor, which is not found in nature in this form because we are talking about a pure cultivated form.


The garden pansy is not a very demanding flowering plant. However, there are a few criteria about location and care that must be taken into account, so that viola wittrockiana grows beautifully with rampant blossoms.


Garden pansies are quite flexible in regard to their location. They tolerate both semi-shade and sunny places easily. With viola wittrockiana in all its forms and variations, many places in the garden can be illuminated. And not just in spring, but also (depending on the planting season) until autumn.

Particularly in geometrical arrangements the flowering plants are a magnificent eye-catcher in the flower bed. But also terrace and balcony can be transformed into a magnificent sea of colors with the easy-care violet.

  • Spring flowering garden pansies: half-shaded or full-sun
  • Summer flowering garden pansies: preferably half-shaded

Soil conditions

This violet thrives particularly well on a nutrient-rich soil. The soil should be able to hold the moisture well, but never tend to stagnate, otherwise the roots of the usually so robust flowering plant will rot quickly. To prevent iron deficiency, the soil should have a slightly acidic pH (not calcareous!).

  • humous
  • sandy-loam
  • fresh-damp to moderately dry
  • loose and permeable
  • good drainage
  • pH: by 6.5 (or slightly less)


If garden pansies are cultivated in pots or balcony boxes, it has to be paid more attention to the quality of soil than in open-field cultivation.

A soil with the following characteristics should be selected:

  • humous and permeable
  • nutrient-rich
  • Mixtures of peat and humus
  • Alternatively potted soil with compost
  • also clayey soil with compost, peat moss and grit

Planting time

In garden center or supermarket, garden pansies are usually available twice a year: once in spring and once again in autumn. Since the robust flowering plant is easy to grow even from seeds, it can also be cultivated several times a year. Plants should be in the open air as follows.

  • In spring: from the middle of May
  • In autumn: until mid-September at the latest

Viola wittrockiana develops its flowers in the same year or in the spring of the following year, depending on the planting season or the sowing date.

Planting in flower beds

For the planting of garden pansies in the open air, the soil must be well prepared. Straight perennial flower beds are usually heavily leached by the yearly changing planting. Nutrients and humus are very important for the popular flower. In addition, the gardener should ensure an optimal water supply.

  • cover the bed well
  • remove old roots and weeds
  • incorporate some compost or humus
  • Sand or grit are suitable for the optimization of drainage
  • if necessary, mix horn shavings or horn meal as a starting fertilizer
  • Planting distance: 15 to 20 cm
  • Plant depth: as above

Planting in pots

In the pot the planting of garden pansies is similar to that in flower beds. For potted plants and balcony plants it can be used pure or with a mixture of sand, grit or clay granules balcony potting soil. It is always advisable to use vessels with drainage openings so that the water does not accumulate and lead to root rot.

It is also possible to mix some old soil from the previous year with a fresh potting compost- this can be tolerated by the robust pansies- but the blossoming is more rampant when a high-quality potting soil is used.


Optimal conditions for a good water supply are provided by an already prepared soil or a high-quality potting soil. They consist of components which, on the one hand, can store the water and on the other hand, the moisture can easily drain, so there is no danger of waterlogging. Until the flowering plants have grown, they must be regularly watered.

Garden pansies, which are in a full sun place, require additional water for the entire vegetation. The soil should always be slightly moist. Plants which are located in rather shaded areas need additional water only in long periods of drought.

In case of potted or balcony plants, the smaller the planting vessel, the more frequently the soil should be checked for moisture and, if necessary, watered. Due to the clearly limited space and therewith the soil, the root ball dries out more quickly.


Viola wittrockiana is very modest and demands too little for a lasting flowering. However, if you want to have some of its flowering plants for a long time, you should provide enough nutrients. If compost or horn shavings have already been incorporated into the soil during planting, no further fertilization is necessary until the end of the flowering phase. Garden pansies, which bloom in the spring, do not have to be re-fertilized after planting.

Potted and balcony plants are supplied with a small quantity of long-term fertilizer no later than the beginning of the flowering. Alternatively late–flowering varieties in the growth phase can be supplied with nutrients every second week with a little liquid fertilizer for flowering plants from the garden specialty store or stinging nettles in the ratio 1:2 over irrigation water with nutrients.


You should regularly remove faded flowers, so that you can profit as long as possible from the magnificent rampant blossoms of the garden pansy. This makes the plant not only more cultivated, but it also forms new buds and blossoms. If you want that violet propagates itself, leave simply a few inflorescences, so that seed capsules can form, in which the seeds mature.


Although the garden pansy is actually a two-year-old plant, which in the first year forms only leaves and in the second year flowers, however it is cultivated by most gardeners only for one season. Most varieties of Viola wittrockiana are sufficiently frost-hardy. In mild winters they bloom even until spring. During the cold season, potted plants always need frost protection to protect the roots from damage.

In the balcony box, pansies cannot winter outside. The plants retain also in winter their foliage. As soon as the temperatures fall below the freezing point, they are as if they were dead. When the thermometer rises again, however, the shoots which lie on the ground stand up again.

  • Open field plants: brushwood or a layer of foliage
  • Potted plants: cover with brushwood or straw
  • place the pot on styrofoam plate
  • wrap the pot with fleece or plastics

Basically, garden pansies are sufficiently frost-resistant (up to -15 degrees), but there are always problems in cold winters without snow. If the plants have not survived the winter, they are usually not frozen, but dried up. Above all, such plants, which are in the full sun, lose too much water by evaporation over the leaves. Another problem is a too wet ground in the cold season.


Most gardeners buy garden pansies twice a year for the corresponding season. But this is not necessary at all. Because with some skill and patience, rare and beautiful specimens can be reproduced from the seeds themselves without special effort.


Depending on the variety, the seeds can be removed from the mature seed capsules either in spring or in autumn. If you want to have permanently flowering garden pansies in the flower bed or in the pot from spring to autumn, you can achieve this with a double sowing a year.

  • remove the seed from the capsules
  • let them dry well
  • seed them directly into the beds or in pots
  • Sowing date for summer flowering: February in the house, from March in hotbed
  • from May directly into bed
  • Sowing date for spring flowering: no later than August

Choose a sufficient large container for sowing, because nothing disturbs the small plantlets in the development as the too little space. Before sowing, you should rub the tiny grains with fine, dry sand to remove the oily layer. This facilitates the germination process.

  • Soil: potting compost, seeding compost, cactus compost
  • seed the seeds flat on the moistened soil
  • Seed planting depth: 0.5 to 1 cm (seed germination in darkness)
  • cover with fine sand or fine soil
  • keep soil slightly moist
  • cover the pot with a glass or a freezer bag
  • Location: bright, without direct sun
  • Germination time: 7 to 14 days
  • Germination temperature: 17 to 22 degrees
  • isolate 4 to 6 weeks after sowing
  • Pot size: 6 to 9 cm
  • accustom slowly to open air

After about two to three more weeks, the young plants are sufficiently large and well adapted to the outside temperatures so that they can be planted to their final location. Garden pansies that are supposed to bloom in spring may be planted in October at the latest. In summer blooms, it has proven to be a good idea to wait till the planting is complete, until night frosts are not to be expected (mid-May).


Already since the beginning of the 19th century, plant enthusiasts cultivated garden pansies with particularly large and colorful flowers, early flowering and good winter hardness. Not all varieties show the characteristic “black eye” in the center of the flower. Today there are almost an infinite number of different varieties of Viola wittrockiana. Very special beauties are usually only available as seeds in the specialty store.

The following series contain the most diverse color shades and combinations:

Series ´Cats´

  • very delicate patterning in different color shades
  • well-branched plants, with abundant flowers


  • compact growth
  • optimum cultivation and flowering behavior even in low light conditions
  • typical “black eye” in the center of the flower
  • usually very vividly colored flowers

´Fama´ Series

  • short-stalked, round foliage on compact rosette
  • dense and upright plants
  • noble, large flowers, often wavy at the edge of the flower
  • monochrome and multi-colored variants

´Joker´ Series

  • almost exclusively multi-colored variants
  • often with special coloring (happy face)
  • winter-hardy open air-pansies

Series ´ Viola tricolor maxima´

  • extra early, large-flowered variety
  • available in 15 bright individual colors
  • suitable for spring and autumn planting
  • good winter hardiness

´Super Swiss Giant´

  • robust, compact varieties
  • huge flowers with and without black spots
  • ideal for autumn flowering

´Delta Series Cool Water´

  • extremely early flowering
  • vigorous and large-flowered
  • very pure cultivation, often monochrome


Garden pansies become ill very rarely. In addition, the damage is limited considering the short life of the plant, if it becomes diseased. Self-grown garden pansies are usually more resistant than the commercial potted ones, which are cultivated in greenhouses. Particularly the young plants planted in the open air in autumn are distinguished by strong growth, long-flowering time and high resistance.

Nevertheless, occasional diseases occur:

  • Botrytis
  • Powdery and downy mildew
  • Root rot
  • Leaf spot disease



If leaves and flowers do not longer mature, but they suddenly fade, it is often because of aphids.

Spider mites

Bright, dried leaves as well as whitish dots and a fine web on the shoots indicate an attack of spider mites.

Caterpillars and voles

If a whole plant disappears overnight, there must be nocturnal caterpillars, voles or snails.

Pansies are not Difficult to Grow from Seed

Graham Rice examines one of the most popular of bedding or container plants.

What exactly is a pansy? To many people this is not a simple question as they are often confused with violas and violettas.

In fact it’s quite simple. Pansies are derived from our native wild heartsease (Viola tricolor) and, like heartsease, are basically annuals and biennials. The other main contributor to the huge range of hybrid varieties now available is V. lutea.

The wild heartsease Viola tricolor subsp. tricolor, is a straggly plant, usually an annual or biennial although in undisturbed situations it may persist for a couple of years. It grows as a weed of cultivation and on waste ground and sometimes also in short-cropped grassland areas. It’s far more common on acid and neutral soil and in limy conditions.

The flowers are variable and are usually bluish-violet but with varying degrees of yellow on the lower petal. The flowers are very rarely without at least some blue.

The other parent of the garden pansy is the mountain pansy, V. lutea, which occurs in many forms all over Europe. Some authorities maintain that the form used as a breeding parent is subsp. sudetiana which grows in the mountains of central Europe. Others say that it was the form which grows in the Pentland Hills in southern Scotland which was used.

Unlike the heartsease, V. lutea is a creeping perennial plant with noticeably larger flowers. About the only constant feature of its flowers is that the base of the lower petal is always yellow. The flower may be entirely yellow or yellow combined with blue-violet or reddish-violet or both.

This plant contributes the shorter more tufted habit, reddish colouring, a tendency to pronounced whiskering and valuable variability.

The crossing of these two plants results in the garden pansy, V. x wittrockiana and the plants tend to be annuals, biennials or short-lived perennials which become straggly in their second year. Just for the record, violas are derived from crossing the garden pansy with other species, in particular V. cornuta, while violettas are basically dwarf forms of violas with no whiskers and a noticeable scent. Both are good perennials, most have a neat, compact habit.

Development of the heartsease began in the early years of the nineteenth century with large flowers and especially attractive colour combinations being selected. Although basically annual plants, like a number of other annuals they could also be increased from cuttings and this was the way in which selected forms were perpetuated.

It was not until 1859 that James Grieve, who gave his name to the well-known apple, crossed the selected forms of heartsease with V. lutea. From then on developments proceeded rapidly. Both for bedding and as a florist’s flower for shows the numbers of pansies grew and grew.

The florist’s varieties are very much a minority interest these days and for most people it’s seed raised varieties which immediately spring to mind.

By 1900 the T&M seed catalogue was listing 20 varieties, including mixtures of seed saved from the best show varieties – which should have produced some interesting though unpredictable results. Even at this early stage a ‘black’ pansy (‘fine dark purple variety, almost black’) called ‘Faust’ was listed.

Twenty-four varieties were listed in 1954, again including seed from show varieties plus ‘King of the Blacks’ and a number such as ‘Roggli Giants’ and ‘Coronation Gold’ which were still listed in 1991.

Seed of show varieties had vanished by the time the 1991 catalogue from T&M was issued but it listed 42 varieties in all, including an improved version of ‘King of the Blacks’ called ‘T&M’s Black Pansy’.

Pansies for summer

For many years pansies were sown in summer for flowering in the spring. The first change was a tendency for them to be sown in the spring and grown as summer bedding plants. But in recent years there has also been a trend to growing them for winter flowering outdoors.

With such a vast array of varieties already grown as summer flowers and so few suitable for spring, it seems perverse to attempt to convert one of the very best spring flowers into a summer bedder.

And it must be said that while all pansies will provide a fine show in spring from a sowing the previous year, there are many which will not thrive in the drier, hotter summer conditions. So why bother? Why not simply grow them for spring when they can be relied on to perform well?

But if you must grow summer pansies, the ‘Imperial’ series with their very large flowers in some stunning colour combinations are the ones to go for.

Pansies for winter

Winter flowering pansies have received a great deal of publicity in recent years but there have been varieties of this sort listed for many years, ‘Celestial Queen’ was the name in vogue in the late 1950s. In the 1970s and 1980s the names ‘Winter Flowered Mixed’ and ‘Hiemalis’ crop up in more than one catalogue. Generally these were all varieties which produced a few flowers in the autumn, a few flowers in mild spells in winter then started their main display early in the spring though ‘Hiemalis’ was more genuinely winter flowering but with small flowers.

From 1979 the massive promotion of the ‘Universal’ pansies as a genuine winter flowering variety increased people’s awareness of the idea and posters showing them flowering in the snow fostered the idea that they really did flower all winter. This was something of an illusion. They tended to provide a good flush of flower in the autumn but only a few during the winter. Some colours performed better than others, and there was a great deal of variation in the habit of the plants, some being very straggly.

In some trials where ‘Universal’ pansies were not entered varieties like ‘Reveille’ were seen to do well and many people began to wonder if the very effective promotion of the ‘Universals’ rather over-emphasised their qualities (stronger words were often used!).

Other winter varieties soon began to appear but it wasn’t until this year at Springfield Gardens at Spalding in Lincolnshire that a comprehensive trial of winter pansies was organised.

The plants were assessed on December 5 1990 and then on March 20 and April 16 1991. The head gardener at Springfields reported that few flowers were produced in the winter months .

Marks were awarded for ‘flower power’, colour uniformity, mixture balance, plant habit and general health and winners were announced for the best mixture and the best varieties in 16 separate colours. The winner for the best mixture was ‘Favourite’, a French variety which also did well in several of the separate colour categories.

The full results were as follows:

The most striking thing about this list of winners is not that the ‘Universals’ have failed to live up to their extravagant promotion but that so few of the winners are even available to home gardeners.

The other main trend has been towards unusual colours and colour combinations and there has been quite an influx of these in recent years. They can be broken down into those in the familiar patterns but with unusual colours and those in completely new patterns.

Varieties with red or pink blotches are very striking and those like ‘Imperial Silver Princess’ in white with a whiskered red blotch and ‘Imperial Gold Princess’ in deep yellow with a red blotch have become more widely grown but these F1 hybrids can be more expensive and perhaps the most popular of this type is ‘Love Duet’ in shades of white, cream and palest pink with a pink blotch – they’re less expensive but more variable.

Pansies with a much more distinctive and more complicated face rather than a simple blotch have been introduced in recent years like ‘Joker Light Blue’ is the most distinctive, it has a tiny yellow eye at the centre of a dark blue, cat-faced blotch, this is surrounded by’ a white butterfly shape and then the whole surrounded by a band of pale blue. This F2 hybrid is rather variable and the F1 ‘Maxim Marina’ is similar but more stable. ‘Joker Viola Gold’ is similar in purple and orange but ‘Jolly Joker’ is deep purple with a very large, rather variable orange blotch.

The other main group are those in which the flower is almost entirely dark with a pale rim to each petal. ‘Rippling Waters’ is deep purple with a narrow off-white border, ‘Brunig’ is deep mahogany with a gold rim. These too can be variable but at their best are very striking , and still available today.

One other that needs mentioning is ‘Delft’, a very unusual and striking combination. The lower three petals are creamy yellow with a little fine whiskering while the upper two petals are blue with a creamy edge. Very choice.

Pansies in the garden

Pansies are ideal for a temporary spring display either in beds or containers. A hanging basket planted solely with pansies is very effective and they trail over the edge of window boxes without hanging down too far. Dwarf and medium sized bulbs like the daintier daffodils, grape hyacinths and species tulips are ideal companions.

In larger containers they can be used as an edging to taller plants like wallflowers or tall forget-me-nots and the bulbs used can be a shade taller and more substantial.

But perhaps the best way to use pansies, especially those with the more interesting colour combinations is on their own in a broad rather flat container. They can be displayed on the patio or near the door where you can see them and will provide a long spell of intriguing colours.

In mixed borders pansies fit in quite well, few except the very brightest like the orange ‘Padparadja’ look out of place amongst perennials. They can either be slipped in wherever you feel the need of a little spring colour or you can leave spaces for small groups, which can be replaced with choice annuals for the summer.

Raising pansies

Pansies are not difficult to raise from seed. For autumn planting to flower in spring, seed can be sown at any time from May to early July. A soil-less compost is suitable but should have extra perlite added if you suspect the drainage may be poor. Cover thinly with vermiculite and place in a temperature of 59-65F (15-18C) to germinate. High temperatures and fluctuating moisture levels are the most likely causes of failure.

Prick out the seedlings when they are large enough to handle using a similar compost. They can either go into trays or I use 7cm square pots; early sowings may appreciate 9cm pots. The plants can grow on in a frame until the September when they will be ready for planting. For containers and for hanging baskets in particular, planting in early spring is often more successful. In this case a later sowing is suitable, August or September, and the seedlings should be pricked out into 9cm pots and grown through the winter in a cold frame before planting up in early March. They should only be covered in severe weather.

If you should wish to grow them for summer flowering, sow the seed in March and raise them like summer bedding.

Pansies suffer from few problems. Aphids are the most common and a regular spray with a suitable insecticide will see them off. Slugs can cause problems in wet seasons but perhaps the thing that causes the most disquiet is leaf spot. Brown or white spots occur on the foliage but a cure is difficult to achieve, spraying with Dithane 945 or a similar fungicide will help stop further spread.

Graham Rice was trained at Kew and is now a horticultural journalist and author.

Source of article
Growing From Seed – Autumn 1991 Vol. 5 Number 4
© The Seed Raising Journal from Thompson & Morgan

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