A pansy for your thoughts

The many faces of ever-popular violas are full of symbolism and meaning

Viola tricolor, detail of a watercolour by Caroline Maria Applebee circa 1799-1854When I was about seven or eight my mother gave my brother and I a small patch of earth in our front garden to call our own.

This was my first garden. Shortly afterwards my grandad took us to the local garden centre to pick our first plants. We were allowed to choose one by ourselves.

I chose a pansy (Viola tricolor), primarily because they looked to me like faces - a thought inspired by Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, which at that time often gave me nightmares. I would dream that I was being chased by the queen and her pack of cards through an infinite maze, never quite sure that I would reach the door in time to awaken myself on the bank. Thinking about it now I always reacted badly to the pink elephants in Dumbo too, so maybe it was just the psychedelic nature of the colour palette. Regardless, I loved the flowers in the Golden Afternoon series and the childlike pansies best of all. As I looked at the Language of Flowers display in the Garden Library at Wisley I was reminded once more of that early garden, as a whole panel was dedicated to the pansy.

The wild pansy was a scrambling plant whose name came from the french pensée, meaning thoughts. Yet Viola tricolor was also known by many other names. In ancient Latin it was known as Jove’s flower, an old Italian name was fiammola or ‘a little flame’, while in England it has been known by a whole range of names including 'three faces under a hood' and 'jump-up-and-kiss-me-quick'. In Elizabethan culture the pansy represented thoughts of a lover. Thus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon calls on Puck to find the 'little western flower' (Act II, Scene 1) that maidens called 'love-in-idleness' in order to make a potion that will change an individual’s thoughts causing them to fall in love with the next thing they see. 

‘Thoughts’, an engraving by E. L. Bateman for Flowers and their kindred thoughts published in 1848The pansy entered the Victorian language of flowers at the time when it was being hybridised, making it a popular addition to the flower garden. These new varieties had larger petals than their ancestors and came in a range of vibrant colours. By this time a pansy was predominately given to symbolise thoughts of platonic love and as such would be an appropriate gift from one family member to the other. A fitting first plant for a grandchild.

By the time you read this the Language of Flowers display will have left Wisley but you can still access the Occasional Paper and there is a selection of books on our library shelves that you can search for via the library catalogue.

RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the Lindley Libraries – visit our online catalogue.
Even if you are not an RHS member, the Lindley Libraries are open to everyone and provide access to modern collections of books and journals on gardening and related topics. Our heritage collections of rare books, photographs, art and archives are accessible by appointment

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