Without a doubt, the number one bedding plant flower for winter and early spring color is the pansy. These are tough plants, even though they may sound and look delicate. One of the few flowers that can take it down to single digit temperatures, fall-planted pansies make a spectacular show the following spring.
Plant them in large drifts or masses, or as pockets of color to brighten up a dreary winter landscape. Use them in containers to spotlight a path, porch or wall.
The pansy has one of the widest color ranges of any garden annual. Colors you’ll find include red, purple, blue, bronze, pink, black, yellow, white, lavender, orange, apricot and mahogany. The flowers may be of a single color or have two or three colors with or without a face.
Pansies are related to perennial garden violas. Viola is a large group containing about 500 species. The center of origin for violas was continental Europe.
Sometime after the 4th century B.C. in Europe, someone noticed a plant similar to the perennial viola but growing in open areas with more sunlight. It was named a wild pansy, now known as Viola tricolor or Johnny-Jump-Up. The word pansy is traced back to the French word pensee, meaning thought or remembrance.
This new plant grew on one main stem and branched above ground, unlike the more familiar Violas at that time, which branch below ground with many plants sharing the same root system. The wild pansy flower was larger and more rounded than violas.
Violas and wild pansies were cultivated in Europe by many gardeners. The origin of the plants we now call pansy began in England. In the early 1800’s Lord Gambier and his gardener William Thompson began crossing various Viola species. Records tell us crosses were made among V. tricolor, V. lutea and a blue flowered species possibly of Russian origin, V. altacia. They selected plants for unusual colors, color combinations and increasing flower size.
Thompson discovered an important cross that began the new species V. x Wittrockiana. He found a bloom that no longer had lines of dark color on the flower but large blocks of color on the lower petals called the “face.” Discovered in 1839 and named “Medora,” this pansy and its progeny became popular with gardeners and breeders throughout Europe.
Breeders ever since have constantly worked to improve this tough flower, producing new color and pattern variations in a large range of flower and plant sizes, along with greater heat tolerance and free-flowering lines. Today you will find a wide array of pansy varieties, along with the more diminutive, floriferous violas.
Different breeding companies produce entire series of pansies, with names like Majestic Giants, Antique Shades, Nature, Matrix, Panola, Skippy, and Bingo, just to name a few. Each series sports varieties with and without faces. The Nature series has medium size flowers, more than makes up the size with larger numbers of flowers.
Modern violas look just like the large-flowered pansy cousins in form and color, but sport smaller blooms and leaves. Their smallness is more than made up with the shear abundance of flowers. Two of the more popular viola series are called Sorbet and Penny, which have done quite well in plant trials at Texas A&M at Overton and at the Dallas Arboretum. There are even trailing violas in the Plentifall (Cool Wave), Endurio, Violina and Rebelina series. The Plentifall or Cool Wave series has a lot of folks impressed with dramatic trailing properties and abundant flowers, perfect for hanging baskets, tall pots and wall planters.
Now is the right time to be planting pansy transplants. Pansies require soil temperatures between 45 degrees F and 65 degrees F for best growth. Pansies planted after soil temperatures go below 45 degrees F show stunted, pale green leaves, little growth and, most importantly, little or no flowering. Cold-stressed root systems are less efficient in taking up nutrients.
On the other hand, pansies planted too early and exposed to warm temperatures often appear yellow; the stems stretch and the new growth will appear as small rosettes at the ends of stems. As a result, the plants flower poorly and are more susceptible to frost damage or disease.
Plant pansies and violas in full sun for best flowering displays. They will tolerate partial shade, especially if the shade is from a tree that drops its leaves in winter to let more light through.
Like other types of seasonal color, pansies must have well-drained soils and do not tolerate wet feet. Planting pansies on elevated beds several inches above the existing grade will not only ensure good drainage but will improve the visibility of the color display. Mix in generous amounts compost will slightly raise the soil level and provide the needed drainage.
When preparing a new bed or revitalizing an existing bed, add organic materials to improve the soil’s drainage, and water and nutrient-hold ability. Fully decomposed compost or peat moss make good amendments. Raw bark products should not be used as a soil amendment due to potential nitrogen depletion. Also mix in a slow-release fertilizer at planting time.
Plant transplants at the same level they were in the pot. Once the plants are set, mulch the soil surface. Bark products or pine straw make good mulch. Water thoroughly after planting to settle the soil around the transplants, and make sure the root ball is not exposed, but do not bury the stems.
For best results, use a water-soluble fertilizer solution for feeding pansies during the colder winter months. When the air and soil begins to warm in the spring, you can switch to a granular-type slow release fertilizer.
Besides pansies and violas, other bedding plants that can be planted in now include pinks, dianthus, flowering cabbage and kale, giant red mustard, ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard, stock, snapdragons, wallflower (Citrona or Erysimum), calendulas, diascia and nemesia.