Friday, September 2, 2011

Apple #545: Pansies

You thought I'd forgotten all about my Shakespeare-themed posts, didn't you? Not so! I have another one for you.

I have some greeting cards that I bought a long time ago. They illustrate lines from Shakespeare plays.

This card is my favorite. I like the colors, and how she's peeking out from behind that fan.

The line on the card above is taken from The Winter's Tale. Perdita is saying she wishes she had some flowers to make "like a bank for love to lie on and play on." She wishes she had these flowers:
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes
Or Cytherea's breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength, — a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips, and
The crown-imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one. — O, these I lack,
To make you garlands

This card isn't bad, though the dress made of daisies isn't very flattering.

The line on this card and the next both come from Hamlet, specifically, the scene when Ophelia has gone around the bend and is handing out flowers to people.

Of course, as in all of Shakespeare's plays, anybody who is going mad or is a fool or is otherwise speaking gibberish is actually saying intelligent or secretly wise things. So it is with Ophelia; her lunatic ramblings in fact make sense.

This card may be my least favorite. The pansy-cap on her head and the way she's leaning on her hand makes it look like she's wearing an ice pack and has a headache. It's always seemed to me that sending this card would be like wishing a cold or a flu or a hangover on someone, so I don't think I've ever sent one of these.

Even though I'm not a fan of the illustration on the card about pansies, I'm taking pansies as my subject today. Because I happen to remember from the etymology class (that's word origins, not bugs) which I took long ago in college that pansy comes from the French pensee, which in turn goes back to the Latin penseo which means "to think."

So Ophelia is etymologically correct when she says, "There's pansies, that's for thoughts."

So what are a few other things to know about pansies?

  • Pansies are sometimes considered a type of violet. They're in the genus viola, and some people do call pansies violas. But violas are also a type of flower, and they're slightly different than pansies.
  • Pansies like cool temperatures. They do best in early spring or in fall. So now is a perfect time to be talking about them!
  • Pansy blossoms have one of the widest color ranges of any annual. They can be anywhere on the spectrum from deep reds and purples to pale apricot and lavender to white.

A bevy of pansies, in all sorts of colors.
(Photo from Carlene Reinhart)

  • The blooms take one of three patterns.

They can be a plain color, nothing in the center. Sometimes these are referred to as "clear" pansies.
(Photo from The Gardening Experts)

The second type of pansy has black lines radiating out from the center. This one in particular is the Cheeky-faced Blue Pansy.
(Photo from

The third and probably the best-known type has a shape in the center that resembles a face.
(Photo from Fairway Lawns Blog)

  • It's said that the shape in the center resembling a face is the reason the flower was named after thoughts. That, plus the fact that when the wind blows, the flowers nod, so it looks like they're actively thinking.
  • I have to say, I don't really see a face. If anything, they look to me like stick-figure bodies with their heads squashed down where their necks should be. But centuries of people have said they look like faces so, okay, faces it is!
  • Some people saw the pansy blossom as being heart-shaped. So they thought it would be good for curing broken hearts, and the flower was used as an ingredient in love potions.
  • Pansies are used as love potions in another of Shakespeare's plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was pansy juice that Oberon and Puck put on various people's eyes to make them fall in love with the first creature they saw. In Titania's case, she fell in love with an ass.

Titania Sleeps, by Frank Cowper, 1928. That might be a pansy next to her head, or maybe it's a rose, hard to tell.
(Image from Art Decoblog)

  • Pansy flowers are, by the way, edible. So no worries about those love potions being poisonous.
  • Still others thought the three major petals was reminiscent of the Holy Trinity, so these folks sometimes referred to the flower as herb trinity.
  • The flower has had all sorts of other common names:
  1. Johnny jump-ups
  2. Monkey faces
  3. Peeping Toms
  4. Three faces in a hood
  5. Tickle-my-fancy
  6. Kiss-her-in-the-pantry
  7. Heartsease
  • One German legend says that pansies used to have a tremendous fragrance. Their scent was so beguiling, people came from miles around to smell it. In doing so, they trampled all the grass around it, which the nearby cattle needed for food. The pansies saw how the cows were suffering, so they prayed to God to help the cows. So God took away the pansies' fragrance and gave them beautiful faces instead.

I could see thinking a that red pansy like this might be the source of a love potion.
(Photo from Baer Home Design)

  • "Pansy" is also derogatory slang for an effeminate homosexual man, or a weak person.
  • A, insults are never nice. B, I tried to find out why this flower, of all flowers, got chosen for this meaning. No luck. The most I could discover was that the slang meaning's first recorded use was in 1929.
  • In an ironic contrast, J.K. Rowling named one of her toughest, meanest female characters Pansy Parkinson.

A deep purple Bingo pansy. No wimpiness here.
(Photo and seeds available from Thompson & Morgan)

Caring for the Flowers
  • Pansies like the cold so much, there is even one variety called the icicle pansy that doesn't mind the snow.
  • Though they like the air to be cool, pansies love the sun. They won't do well in the shade.
  • Pansies do actually have a fragrance, although it's often so delicate, it's hard to detect. The fragrance will be most noticeable at dawn or dusk.
  • If your pansies have bloomed in the spring, and if you've been able to keep them protected from the heat, when it gets cool in the fall, they might bloom again.
  • They're annuals, but they don't come back as vibrantly in subsequent years, so most people change the plants each year.
  • Don't plant pansies in the same bed for more than three years in a row.

I think these look really cool. They're called Jolly Jokers. They're hybrids and they won all sorts of awards in 1990.
(Photo and seeds available from

  • In the 1880s, pansies were described as "the most popular of all flowers grown from seed."
  • But because pansies are so particular about temperature, they can be tricky to start from seed. So if you want to plant them, you'll have the best luck if you choose plants that are already growing.
  • They like to be watered regularly and fed fertilizer monthly.
  • If the plants are "leggy," or they have lots of stems, they're getting too much shade.
  • If the edges of the leaves turn brown, they've probably had too much water.
  • Slugs and aphids like pansies, too, so be on the look-out for those.

Georgia O'Keeffe's black pansy.
(Image posted by Bob Swain on Picasaweb)

  • Lots of variety from a little flower.

About the cards:
The label on the back of the box says they're Caspari Note Cards, Flowers from Shakespeare's Garden. But I checked and I couldn't find anybody who sells these exact cards. I'm not surprised; I bought them a long time ago. But here is Caspari's web page where they sell other note cards. Those are more contemporary than the ones I've posted here. Alternatively, Amazon sells a few other Caspari note cards that are more similar in style to mine.

Online Etymology Dictionary, pansy
Nancy O'Donnell, Pretty pansies, the world's favorite, have a long history,
Albany Times Union, April 20, 2005
Texas A&M AgriLIFE Extension, Pansy
West Virginia University Extension Service, Pansies
Marie Iannotti,, Pansies - Growing a Cool Weather Favorite
Flower for You, Pansy
Angelfire, Meanings & Legends of Flowers, P

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