I didn’t think I’d come to like them so much, these bright colourful flowers a little too exuberant for my tastes. But they blossomed everywhere, caught raindrops on their petals, and danced in the sun. I’m proud to say that I’ve never given in to the urge to eat one of these beauties, even sugared and laid seductively on my plate. Well, it’s the easiest explanation to give, rather than admit that their flowers are somewhat anthropomorphic, and that I don’t have the guts to eat things that look like faces. Luckily for us, bravery prevails occasionally. Rumour born of gastronomic escapades has it that they taste slightly sweet and grassy, so I’ll take their word for it.
Garden pansies are hybrids derived in the 1800s from various species in the Viola genus, most notably Viola tricolor. Although more complicated nomenclature does exist, pansies are most commonly termed Viola tricolor var. hortensis. I’ve seen a huge variety of colours, many of them bi-coloured. Their petals are rather floppy, and comprise two overlapping upper ones, two side ones, and a bottom one with a little indentation, resembling a chin. Often, the flowers also have markings radiating from the centre, sometimes dark-coloured lines (called beards), and commonly blotches, like spreading ink (called the face).
Perhaps because of their shape, somewhat manly features, and their name meaning ‘thought’, pansies have been privy to rather interesting symbolisms. They’ve been used to represent pious humility, grace, delicacy, and tenderness, but also forbidden love and domestic woes. It’s even made a cameo in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ where the juice of its direct ancestor, heartsease, was a love potion to be smeared on the eyelids of unsuspecting lovers. (I hope ethics have evolved for the better since.) But whatever they’re thought to mean or do, pansies are possibly one of the most popular plants used in flower beds for their ability to provide carpets of fluttery, non-toxic, colour.