By Dan Milhollin, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Supposedly the love potion in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” -- the potion was placed gently on the eyelids of the “intended” love -- was made from pansies. With a delicate fragrance yet the stamina of a rock, this versatile and hardy member of the Viola family can romance any sunny location with minimal care. All it needs is occasional pinching back to prevent vine sprawl and a watchful eye in the rainy season for snails and slugs.
Around October or November when summer annuals become shaggy and ready for the compost pile, it’s time to think of pansies and their smaller cousins, the viola, which can snuggle into containers or small, delicate garden beds. Either choice will almost always guarantee color from autumn through early June or later. Pansies are annuals, which means that they live only for one season.
Massed in a single color or a combination of the variety of color choices, this gentle flower transforms a simple container -- plant a complimentary color around the base of a potted Phormium (or any focal plant in any container) or an entire garden bed with not only dazzling color but also the stamina to withstand rain, frost, hail and (heaven forbid, in Sonoma County) light snow.
One of my most pleasant experiments with pansies has been a 3’ bed of plain-faced yellow pansies which, viewed from my bedroom window, resembled the face of the sun, a welcome sight especially on a sunless January morning. Another year I added a border of orange calendula to this circular bed of yellow pansies; this year the border is double row of blue pansies complementing the yellow “sun.”
Pansies have been hybridized over the years to become one of the most colorful, durable and carefree cool season plants. Color choices -- the full spectrum isn’t always available -- include the deeper hues of maroon, red, orange, yellow, white, violet, blue, and even black. The flower face, composed of five petals with a small, distinct yellow eye, may be “blotched” with a contrasting color -- the orange-deep purple combination is especially attractive -- or “plain Jane” (faceless) for pure, uninterrupted color.
And, should you want your love potion closer in these cooler months, bring a potted pansy inside to decorate the dinner table, sniff its gentle fragrance and stare into its “whiskered” face. Ah, romance. Your love is also edible: salads, desserts, or simple plate décor. Too, your love can be “candied” for a sweeter sensation: paint the petals with an egg white-water wash, sprinkle with superfine sugar and either oven dry at low temperature or allow to air dry for a few days. Decorate a cake or float a flower in a cup of tea. Your love can be as close as your lips.
Yes, you can buy love; it’s nearly always available in plant racks outside home improvement stores, drug stores, and within every garden nursery; the lovable pansy and viola are conveniently packaged in cell packs (six plants) or one plant per-four inch pots -- one of the least expensive methods of coloring the winter landscape. Sun, well-drained soil (preferably amended), consistent moisture and light fertilizer (if you remember) are the only requirements. Snails and slugs will get hungry for their love potion too. While this love potion is only seasonal, it may last as long as any other romantic adventure -- or longer. So, go ahead, purse your lips and plant.
In Love and Memoriam
In early March, 2019, we said farewell to our friend and fellow Master Gardener, Dan Milhollin, author of this article. Dan made many large and small contributions to the Sonoma County Master Gardener organization from serving as a Board member to offering mentoring and friendship to any number of Master Gardeners. His fondness for flowering annuals and perennials (especially for his backyard rose garden) is evident from the articles that he contributed to our website. We will miss him.