Planting pansies is at the top of my list of autumn garden chores right now for many reasons.
These cool-weather-loving annuals will brighten the landscape into the coldest days of winter and provide relief from the brown bleakness of the drying leaves and other landscape plants. They are also a nice addition to salads and other dishes.
If you are worried about winter’s impending arrival, Auburn University reports that many pansy varieties can withstand temperatures of 2 degrees to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I have witnessed them blooming through a light snow cover and through the holiday season in many winters here in Lawrence.
In a mild winter, fall-planted pansies are likely to survive until summer’s heat arrives in May and June. If temperatures do drop below zero, covering the plants may offer enough protection to get them through the coldest days.
Pansies’ petals are distinctively asymmetrical with a darkened center that gives the flower a face-like appearance. They also have a delicate velvety feel. Pansies are available in many shades of purple, yellow, orange and red, and combinations of colors (such as yellow petals with purple centers). There are a few white-petaled varieties with colored centers.
Plant pansies in the ground or in containers, but keep in mind that they are more likely to overwinter planted in the ground. Loosen the soil around the plant to make it easier for their root systems to expand, and mulch after planting. Since pansy plants are compact, plant them 6 inches to 8 inches apart as a maximum. Fertilize as you would other annual flowers at planting and again in the spring.
Plant pansies before mid- to late-November to ensure root growth that will help them survive lower temperatures. They can also be planted in early spring when the soil begins to warm. The flowers grow best when nighttime temperatures are around 40 degrees and daytime temperatures are around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pansies are sometimes confused with violas or referred to as Johnny jump-ups, a nickname given to both flowers. Violas are actually the parent of pansies — the more floriferous pansies are the result of crossbreeding of different species of violas that began in the early 1800s. Pansies were created in an effort to develop plants with more flowers and different flower characteristics. Today, there are several hundred cultivars of pansies and violas available.
Both pansies and violas are edible, and all parts of the plant can be eaten. They are a beautiful addition to a fresh salad with their own unique mild flavor. Use the blossoms to top creamy spreads, soups, fresh fruit and cupcakes. They can also be used to flavor honey and syrup or used as a garnish. The flowers are high in vitamins A and C.
With most edible flowers, pistils and stamens should be removed from flower centers before eating because they may give the flower an off-flavor. With pansies, however, pistils and stamens can be eaten along with the rest of the blossom.
Pansy and viola flowers can also be used to create dye.
Although Kansas State University conducts research to identify the best-performing annual flower varieties in the state, pansies are not on the list because the research is conducted during summer months when the flowers perform poorly. Check with local greenhouse and nursery staff to determine the best varieties for your garden.
— Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Contact her or an Extension Master Gardener with your gardening questions at 843-7058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.