"No lot is perfect; but that is the nearest to it which has Heartsease to sweeten it."
This tiny flower is one of the first to bloom for me in the Spring, and sometimes continues to flower through the Fall until the snows cover it. It is such a small, insignificant plant, yet so worthy of its name! I even have a few plants growing in pots on the kitchen windowsill, and they are indeed a comfort for my winter-weary heart!
Viola tricolor is a native throughout most of Europe, as well as North Africa and parts of Siberia and India. Gerard, who calls it "Hartes-ease" and "Paunsie", writes that it "groweth in fieldes in many places, and also in gardens". As Robert Buist remarks, "The simplicity and and striking beauty of this lovely little flower has attracted notice from the earliest floral times". Shakespeare knew it well, as did many other early writers, and the legends associated with it are so numerous that I think a whole book could be written about this flower alone!
It gets its botanical name from the fact that the flowers are usually, as Gerard says, "of three sundrie colours...that is to say, purple, yellow, and white or blew: by reason of the beuatie & braverie of which colours, they are very pleasing to the eie".
But this dear little flower goes by an amazing number of names. In America, it is commonly known as Johnny-jump-up. The name Pansy comes from the French word Pensees, or thoughts. Shakespeare mentions this in Hamlet: "There's pansies, that's for thoughts"; and Ben Jonson writes:
"I pray, what flowers are these?
The pansie this;
O, that's for lovers' thoughts."
Other names include, Love-in-Idleness (as in A Midsummer Night's Dream), Cuddle/Cull/Call-me-to-you, Meet-me-in-the-Entry, Three-Faces-Under-a-Hood, Godfathers and Godfathers, Stepmother, Bouncing Bet, Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery, Kit-run-in-the-Fields, Ladies' Delight, Battlefield Flower, None-so-pretty, Flame Flower, Pink of My John, Herb Trinitatus, and, as Phillips says, "others equally whimsical and unappropriate".
But I think Heartsease is the sweetest name of all! Louise Beebe Wilder tells us that "The little Pansy was deemed a potent heart remedy or cordial and so received the name of Heartsease". But others say that it got this name from the fact that it was used in ancient times as a love potion. Regardless of how it came about, it certainly caught the attention of many writers and poets! Mary Botham Howitt (1799-1888) wrote these lines:
"Heart's Ease! one could look for half a day
Upon this flower, and shape in fancy out
Full twenty tales of love and sorrow,
That gave this gentle name."
There is a delightful story about how the Heartsease or Pansy came into our gardens...
There was once a little plant who was so shy that it crept into a secluded corner and there, under the shade of some taller plants, unfolded its blossoms. But it was soon discovered by a little bird, who sang of its beauty to the whole world. One day, an angel who had come to earth on a mission of mercy, heard the bird singing and asked to be led to it. When she saw the modest flower, the angel cried, "Ah! how lovely you are! Too lovely to dwell alone in the shadows. You should be a flower in the garden of angels. But wait, I have thought of something even more beautiful for you. You shall be the angel's blossom, but you shall bloom in the land of man. Go, sweet Pansy, bloom in every land and bring to all people sweet thoughts of peace and love and faith". Then the angel kissed the flower, leaving an imprint of her face on each blossom.
The ending to this story explains how it came to be called Herb Trinitatus, or Trinity, Flower...
The kiss of the angel gave it a perfume sweeter even than the Violet. But since the Pansy grew in fields, people were trampling on and destroying the crops whilst looking for it. So the Pansy prayed to the Holy Trinity to take away its fragrance so that it would no longer be sought. Its prayer was heard, and the name Trinity Flower was given to the self-sacrificing little blossom.
This lovely poem also suggests that it was planted by "mercy's angel":
There is a little flower that's found
In almost every garden ground,
'Tis lowly but 'tis sweet;
And if its name express its power,
A more invaluable flower
You'll never, never meet.
I said in every garden ground;
Perhaps in Eden 'twas not found,
For there it was not wanted;
But soon as sin and sorrow came,
The flower received its gladdening name,
By mercy's angel planted.
My child! if God within our bower
Should plant this lovely flower,
To tend it be our duty;
Then, should there be a smile or tear,
So it be mutual, it will rear,
Unfold, and show its beauty."
And James Russel Lowell penned these lines in the beginning of his book of poetry entitled, Heartsease and Rue:
"Along the wayside where we pass bloom few
Gay plants of heartsease, more of saddening rue;
So life is mingled; so should poetry be
That speak a conscious word to you and me."
John Bunyan gives a beautiful tribute to Heartsease in The Pilgrim's Progress. When Christiana and her sons were passing through the Valley of Humiliation with Great-heart as their guide, they paused to listen to a boy singing as he tends his father's sheep. When the lad finished his song, Great-heart turned to them and said, "Do you hear him? I dare to say that this boy lives a merrier life, and wears more of that herb called 'hearts-ease' in his bosom, than he that is clad in silk and velvet".
There is a wonderful children's story about a fairy who wanted to change herself into a flower. She entered a garden, and all the flowers vied with one another to convince her that its was the best lot. The Rose called herself the queen of flowers, the lily showed all her regal beauty, and so on with the Dahlia, Morning Glory, and Iris. But still the fairy stood irresolute. Finally, a little flower growing in a crack of the garden wall cried out, "Be a Pansy!".
"Nay", said the fairy, "you are but a weed, and you have no name."
"Haven't I?", said the Pansy, "Go to the poor man's garden and ask him my name-he'll tell you it is Heartsease; and where will you find a better one than that? Oh, be a Pansy!"
"Well, really", said the fairy at last, "I think I will."
In yet another fairy tale, the fairies were gathered on Midsummer's Eve to discuss what they could do to make the world a brighter place. One of them suggested that they make a new flower, and the rest agreed. So they got out their corn cups and their brushes of dandelion down and set to work. They took blue from the sky, red from the sunset, yellow from sunbeams, and brown from earth, and mixed them together. All night they worked, and when morning came, there were the flowers beautifully painted. Some of them had drawn each others' likenesses and that is why we often see little faces on these flowers. The world has been brighter and better since that night.
This humble member of the Violet family (Violaceae) is thought to be the ancestor of the larger-flowered Garden Pansies which began to be widely cultivated in the 19th century. (Although they were apparently still something of a novelty in Texas in 1878, when a Mrs. J. D. H. reported to Vick's Monthly Magazine that total strangers would come to her garden to see "them flowers that have faces"!) I love the large Pansy too, and have a tray of Swiss Giants seedlings on my desk right as I write. But the little Heartsease will always have a place in my garden and in my heart. I edged my herb garden with them last year and they were so lovely! In his Flora Historica (1824), Henry Phillips suggests planting them in masses: "When seen individually the flower must be noticed with admiration, yet it is not calculated to make a figure in the garden unless planted in large clumps; but when a considerable plot of rising ground is covered with these flowers, the appearance cannot be equaled by the finest artificers in purple and gold". (I should also mention that the flowers have a very pretty way of bowing their heads in wet weather to protect their "faces" from the rain!)
Heartsease is considered an edible flower and has also been used medicinally for a wide variety of complaints, including epilepsy, asthma, cough, skin problems, and heart ailments. But by Phillips' time, it was "nearly if not altogether neglected, for fashion creeps even into our pill boxes". Mrs. Grieve says however, that "it was formerly official in the United States Pharmacopoeia" and notes that it was then "still employed in America in the form of an ointment and poultice in eczema and other skin troubles, and internally for bronchitis". I believe it is still used by some herbalists for both eczema and acne, and I am looking forward to experimenting with it myself this year!
I would be greatly interested to know how the seeds are collected on a large scale by commercial seed growers! My method was to go out at least once a day and gather all the seed capsules as they burst open, but before they had thrown the seeds far and wide. As our neighbor said when he found me at it one day, "You have to sneak up on them"! I then brought them in and made the mistake of laying them out to dry on a table. After a while I noticed that my supply of seeds wasn't increasing as much as it ought to. I suspected the "mousies", so I put them in a jar and covered it with cheesecloth. The next day, I found several seeds caught in the cheesecloth, and there were even a few seeds on the table around the jar. Evidently they are thrown with quite a force as soon as they dry, no matter whether they are still on the plant or no! One of those seeds landed in the pot with my Amaryllis, which led to the happy discovery that Heartsease will grow quite happily on a windowsill even during the shortest days of winter!
This little flower is so beautiful, so easy to grow, and it will cheer your heart throughout the year!
I am a passionate gardener and seed-saver, who also enjoys playing the violin and accordion, running, spending time with my 4 golden retrievers, keeping chickens, photography, and reading.