Pansies are powerful

Crack pansy happinessAll is not well with the world (what the hell is it coming to?) but pansies might just help make it better. Spotted these crack pansies today in Providence and smiled. Coincidentally, also today, a friend told me about The Pansy Project. And last April I wrote this column about them, published April 11, 2012 and titled, Spring pansies save the day for gardeners. It should be noted that this year spring is not demoralizing — quite the contrary. But recent violent events are. 

They say money can’t buy happiness but it can buy a flat of pansies and I need an attitude adjustment right about now. Of all the seasons, spring has the most potential to demoralize gardeners. Consider: This year drought looms. Magnolia blooms were toasted. The grass started growing in March. Instead of blooming their hearts out, my daffodils are having a “rest” year. All of the perennials but one need dividing and transplanting. Weeds are taking over where I might have winter-sowed poppy and columbine seeds and everywhere else too. What keeps me from becoming grumpy? I have pansies to thank for that.

I never feel as rich as when I’m standing at the checkout with a flat or two of pansies balanced on my forearms. And they, more than any other spring flower make me grin. Their monkey faces are even funnier to me than Daffy Duck drawn (by Bugs) as a flower-faced, four-legged screwball. And the pansies laugh along: spring’s wacky weather doesn’t bother them a bit. Summer is the only thing that slows them down.

Their freebie cousins have started to bloom too. Some people think violets are weeds because they seem to prefer growing in a lawn than a cultivated garden bed. No matter where they grow, they’re too sweet and too beneficial to compost: they’re butterfly and insect (bird food) host plants. Dooryard violet (Viola sororia) is the most common around here. It has heart-shaped leaves and a range of flower colors from blue-purple to greyish-white with a delicate blue veins in the center. A cultivar called ‘Freckles’ is spotted purple on white: so adorable. Almost as adorable as the dollhouse-sized violet I noticed when I was planting pansies the other day. It’s possible I’ll be the only one to enjoy its front yard display of pale Johnny jump-up faces no bigger than a baby’s toenail.

Viola labradoricaLabrador violet (V. labradorica) with its gothic black leaves and deep-purple petal flutters might be my very favorite. It spreads by rhizomes and isn’t averse to being transplanted to all of the shady places in my garden. (Though I don’t have many.) It prefers moist soil but has come back willingly in a bone dry spot. Viola ‘Etain’ is another favorite. It has big round butter yellow petals rimmed in French blue and is the most elegantly cheerful perennial violet of them all.

Most violas will be happy to throw a few seeds around the garden. Literally. They’re forcibly ejected when ripe. But pollination is tricky. Insects don’t always notice the flowers despite their fancy faces, and the ones that do need to be able to grab the pollen from down a narrow passage. I read recently about someone who resorted to hand pollinating his favorite pansy with a chin hair. But in case chin hairs or that level of commitment are in short supply, most violets also produce self-pollinating petal-less flowers later in the summer. That’s not common in the plant world. In fact, most plants have mechanisms to prevent inbreeding because a lack of genetic variation severely limits healthy adaptability. But a viola’s got to do what a viola’s got to do to survive.

Maybe if my chef hadn’t observed that pansies taste like wax lips I’d request them on every salad. (All violas are edible.) But I think I would actually prefer to leave their jolly faces in the garden and in a container by my door to serve as reminders to lighten up. T.S. Eliot must have been mistaken. April isn’t the cruelest month after all. Not when there are pansies.