What’s blooming in the area: Few apricot or forsythia flowers, perhaps because of the dearth of snow and rain; daffodils, lavender moss phlox; silver lace vine leafing; lilacs leafing with buds emerging; village ditch running.
Outside the walls and fences: Dandelion, cheat grass; Siberian elm bright green.
In my yard: Lapins cherry, hyacinth, oxalis; leaves opening on Bradford pear and roses; buds forming on sand cherry; Silver King artemisia emerging.
Inside: Pomegranate, zonal geranium; first aptenia flower since the cold of winter.
Animal sightings: Rabbit, light colored snake, gecko, harvester ants, hornet in the house.
Weather: Warm afternoons and winds; last rain 3/8/11; 12:59 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: I have strong memories of pansies, but, strangely, no recollection of what they looked like.
The first comes from my childhood when pansies were the only bedding plant my mother would buy - perhaps the only ones she could afford, and possibly the only ones available. They were put in the shade of the apple tree where they survived until fall, blooming off and on. I suppose most were purple, as pansies were then, but they could have been white or yellow. I don’t remember.
They probably hadn’t changed much since the late nineteenth century.
Pansies had begun as wild members of the violet family. The first were natural hybrids of Viola tricolor and Viola arvensis grown in the gardens of Mary Bennett and James Gambier in the early 1810's. James Lee, a nurseryman, introduced new species from Europe to encourage men like Bennet’s gardener, William Robinson. Gambier’s gardener, William Thompson, produced the first modern blotched flower in 1830.
While the English aristocracy was primarily interested in cultivating perfect individual flowers for exhibition, seeds of the improved viola crossed the channel where French and Belgium breeders experimented with massed plantings grown as annuals. By 1900, the major growers of what was soon called Viola wittrockiana were Bugnot, Cassier, Oldier, and Trimardeau.
When my mother was buying her plants in 1950's, the Thompson and Morgan seed catalog still reflected the aesthetic distinction between England and France. Swiss Giants, which won an All-Selection award in 1933, were bred for cut flowers, while Westland Giants were listed as a “Continental variety.” The rest of the 26 cultivars were individual colors or strains, including Maxima, advertised as a mix of show varieties “saved from one of the finest prize collections in England” and Roggli, introduced in 1930.
By the time I began trying to grow pansies in Michigan in the mid-1980s, the British seed catalog had expanded to 40 choices, divided by bloom size. They still carried Coronation Gold, King of the Blacks, Roggli, and Ullswater Blue, but the abilities to survive adverse conditions and look good in beds were mentioned.
A great deal had changed between the two publications. Sakota Seed had introduced the first F1 hybrid, Majestic Giant, in 1966, and breeders’ knowledge of ideal conditions had increased. Today, Sakota recommends its Crown series be planted in acidic soil with a pH between 5.5 and 5.8 and fed nitrogen and boron. Humidity should be 100% , with the germinating temperature between 64 and 69 degrees and 3,000 foot candles of light. As they grow, the temperature should be reduced to 55 to 65 and the light increased to 7,000 foot candles.
Not everyone follows those instructions. When researchers at the University of Florida tested pansies, they improved their germination potting mixture with dolomite, superphosphate and hydrated lime, then planted them out in fields of augmented fine sand. On their ranking scale of 1 to 10, most were judged fair (6) to good (7). Crowns, evaluated by color, varied between 6.6 and 6.7, Sakota’s Crystal Bowls were between 5.5 and 7.3, Sluis and Groot’s Roc between 6.4 and 7.6, and Goldsmith’s Universal Beaconsfield was 6.6.
Needless to say, when I’ve tried to grow pansies, my conditions were less than optimal, and my experiences haven’t matched those of my childhood. After trying two years in Michigan with what was available, Majestic Giant, Crystal Bowl, Universal Beaconsfield and Roc, I gave them up as a waste of money. The Majestic Giants and Crystal Bowls I bought in alkaline New Mexico in 1995 and 1996 died within a week of being planted.
My next memory of pansies comes from my only visit to Europe in the mid-1980's, where my hotel was a converted hunting lodge near Chantilly. The grounds were small, but the owners wanted to give the illusion of Versailles or the Tuileries, which they did with a large mound of pansies placed at a middle distance from the entrance. I think they were planted in tiers of color, but I don’t remember. I suspect, as soon as they went out of bloom, they were replaced with some other flowering plant.
The inability of the new cultivars to survive was unimportant, so long as they bloomed for several weeks. Pansies served the same function as cut flowers, disposable symbols of elegance whose very ephemeralness was a sign of luxury.
This year I decided to try the squarish stemmed flowers again, in a place so shaded that whatever grows there leans across the path after the sun. I figured if I treated them like the French, as a temporary spot of color to be replaced in a month, they were worth the 55¢ I paid per plant.
Alas, I’ve gotten older. I’ve lost by childhood illusions that wonderful flowers last all summer. I’m now forced to sample the more sophisticated European acceptance of fleeting beauty captured for an instant. To paraphrase Maurice Chevalier in Gigi, “I remember them well.”
Cuthbertson, William. Pansies, Violas and Violets, 1910.
Howe, T. K. and W. E. Waters “Two Year Evaluation of Pansy Cultivars in the Florida Landscape,” Florida State Horticultural Society Proceedings 109:311-318:1996.
Sakota Seed America, Inc. “Pansy Crown,” revised 15 August 2007, available on-line.
Thompson and Morgan. Catalogs from 1955 and 1986.
Photograph: Rose Crown pansy, 30 March 2011.