Pansies: Nobody's Wimp

THE REAL DIRT

February 14, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The Year of the Pansy is here, and none too soon. It's time t pay homage to this pretty little plant with the shallow reputation.

Pansies are oft seen as fussy, fragile flowers, bereft of might, the weenies of the plant world. They can't stand heat and they don't like the cold. They take forever to grow from seed. Pansies are also bullied by taller plants that like to kick dirt in their face while growing past them each spring.

Hence, the pansy's wimpy image -- a reputation that is largely undeserved, according to the National Garden Bureau, which is celebrating 1993 as the Year of the Pansy.

"Pansies are underestimated and widely underused, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest," says Nona Koivula of the NGB.

While older varieties fare badly in hot weather, new pansy hybrids, which are planted in spring, can survive scorching summer heat, rebounding in the fall to bloom again. Other varieties are quite cold-tolerant, withstanding subzero temperatures to flower the following spring.

The truth is, the pansy has become a remarkably sturdy plant, and a hardy addition to the flower bed.

"We joke about pansies being fragile and frivolous, but today's plants take tremendous abuse in terms of heat and cold," says Al Gerace, a Colorado nurseryman who grows 10 million pansies a year.

"We had three straight winters here with temperatures of 25 below, and each time the pansies survived. The plants froze and thawed, froze and thawed. The flowers will even bloom on sunny, 10-degree days.

"Are they rugged flowers? You bet. The pansy is anything but a sissy plant."

Still, old images persist. For instance, armed with this information, I could walk up to Arnold Schwarzenegger and compare him to a pansy. He would break my face. But I would be right.

The pansy has also entered the political arena. Following the presidential election, Bill Clinton received a packet of pansy seeds in the mail. It's not known whether the seeds were a gift from a Democratic supporter or a Republican foe.

The pansy's roots do not run deep. A member of the viola family, it was first bred by an English gardener 150 years ago. With its soft, velvety flowers resembling tiny faces, the pansy quickly conquered Europe, where people raced to grow the biggest flowers.

What they got were plants with blooms so huge and heavy that their heads flopped unceremoniously on the ground. So breeders chose a more moderate path.

Pansies today range from thumbnail size to 4 inches across, and come in every color but green. There are even black pansies. Bi- and tricolored flowers are common; some have as many as five different hues.

The flowers are often fragrant, and always edible. Fancy restaurants use them in salads, or as a garnish. The flowers may also be dipped in sugar water and used in cake decorations.

Pansies may be planted in rich garden soil in either spring or fall. They also take well to planters and window boxes.

Best early-season varieties are Crystal Bowl and Springtime. Mulched, watered and grown in partial shade, the plants will bloom twice, in spring and fall. To maintain continuity, pinch off dead flowers.

Late-season choices include Roc and Universal. Both were bred to last harsh winters. Plant them in a sunny spot in fall for spectacular flowers next spring.

Pick the right pansy varieties and you'll get two seasons of

bloom for the price of one. Choose your plants wisely. Remember, the word pansy comes from the French penser, which means to think.

And what are one's thoughts upon seeing the flowers? All pansies bear the markings of a magical "face" that has long fascinated children and grown-ups alike. Most people say the face resembles that of a cat. They can even point to what appear to be its whiskers.

Purrhaps. But I see something different. When I think of pansies, I am reminded of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just don't tell him I said so.

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