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On the subject of Pansies, Violas and Violettas

Written by:  Elizabeth Farrar © 2000 All Rights Reserved


"to the Ladies and Gentlemen who take pleasure in the flower
garden...that as much as the poor, sickly, half-starved, ragged,
disconsolate man differs from the same man when prosperous,
well-fed, well-clothed, in health, cheerful, and at his ease,
so much does the healthy, well-cultivated flower differ from the
same flower when neglected, and planted in barren and improper soil.".

(Thomas Hogg, Florist, 1839)

Redouté's Bouquet
of Pansies

     The first person known to have taken an interest in improving the native wild flower lovingly known as the Heartsease -Viola tricolor- was Lady Mary Bennet. Each summer, in the early years of the last century, the Tankerville family left its estates in Northumberland for a villa at Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. In between what was probably a busy round of boating parties and dances, Lady Mary, possibly encouraged by her father, "a zealous cultivator of plants," amused herself by collecting up the wild Heartsease found around the garden, transferring them, wih the assistance of the family's gardener, Richardson, to a flowerbed rather appropriately designed in the shape of a heart. Careful selection and a nourishing diet soon produced gratifying results. "But as is often the case with any new trend, not all that far away, at Iver, Admiral Lord Gambier had almost simultaneously been excited by the same idea. He too had an enthusiastic ally in his gardener, Thomson, who carried out his employer's suggestions for improving the Heartsease with such talent and industry that not only did their plants improve "beyond their wildest expectations" but Thompson's subsequent career hybridizing violas was to ensure him a place in gardening history as "the father of the Heartsease."

     From this moment on the development of the pansy ceased to be an agreeable pastime for wealthy amateurs. Ambitious florists and aspiring nurserymen, scenting reputations and profits to be made, jumped with alacrity onto the viola bandwagon. By 1833 there were more than four hundred named pansies to delight and confuse the gardener. "Such an increase was seen as proof of the wonderful progress of floriculture throughout England." Even allowing for a hefty dollop of artistic license, judging from old botanical prints there were some very choice blooms around. However, the horticultural press thought it curious that many who had gardened all their lives "have until very lately condescended to treat the poor pansy as a noxious weed."

The Development Of The Pansy
Flowers (left-top to bottom-right):
Wild 1830, Cultivated 1830
Show Pansy of 1870, Fancy of 1910

But, championed by two opposing camps, the welfare and future of the pansy remained in doubt. The florists formulated draconian rules as to shape, size, and color for the so-called Show Pansy. The amateur gardener, wearying of flowers that had to be individually staked, more often opted for the Fancy Pansy, jolly flowers with few pretensions that could be bought from hawkers' barrows.

Meanwhile, dissatisfied with Show Pansies and Fancies alike, James Grieve, more usually remembered for the delicious apple named after him, set about "crossing everything with everything he could lay his hands on," notably the native Viola lutea, and eventually produced the confusingly named viola, a more compact, floriferous and perennial cousin of the garden pansy (V. X wittrokiana). In time, Dr. Charles Stuart, some say using Viola cornuta from the Pyrenees, went even further, patiently spending ten years breeding out the rays on the petals, to introduce the yet smaller, by tradition sweetly scented, violetta, sometimes known as tufted pansies,

Today, it is encouraging to see renewed interest in violas and violettas. However, it is perfectly possible to have too much of a good thing, and the ubiquitous garden pansy seems to be in danger of aping the florists' chrysanthemum. Now available twelve months out of twelve, they could soon acquire a reputation as the second most boring flower of the decade. 'Universal' and 'Floral Dance' pansies may represent a triumph for the hybridists and seedsmen who created them, but too often look miserable and out of place in harsh weather. Why persevere with this unnatural development when there are so many enchanting flowers and shrubs designed by nature to be at their best during the coldest, darkest months of the year? At this moment, early January, I have pansies in bloom in outdoor tubs, but for me this is their final season. In future, it will be violets for the winter and early spring, pansies and violas for late spring, summer, and early autumn. Seasonal delights, not year-round saturation.

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