Pansies are simply fun flowers. They are the most popular flowers in the broad family of viola, and their bright colors signal spring.

They aren’t a flower for plant geeks, with people attending shows to see who can grow the prettiest, most perfect pansy. They aren’t sophisticated, like orchids, and people around the world aren’t devoted to hybridizing them, like irises.

Instead, they are a quick delight, a plant that people buy on their first visit to the garden center each spring, bring home and put in a pot or a bed in a prominent part of the yard to bring a bit of joyful color into their lives.

Children love pansies, mostly because of the bright colors create what looks like a face. Our oldest grandchild, whom my wife and I helped look after when she was young while her father was working and her mother was finishing college, especially loved one called Jolly Joker, which she would plant each year in our yard.

Pansies are a perennial, technically, hardy to Zone 4, which includes most of Maine. Most people treat them as a temporary annual, planted very early in the spring and blooming beautifully for a couple of months. Pansies dislike warm weather, so fade away when summer hits. Some websites recommend that you cut them back after they stop blooming and water them regularly, so they will resume blooming in the fall. We have never remembered to do that, so I don’t know if it is true.

You can, however, plant pansies in September and enjoy the blossoms for several months in the fall. Over the winter, if the snow doesn’t cover them, the plants will look wizened and unattractive, but they will start blooming again in early April and carry on through early June.

Be aware, though, that nurseries have fewer pansies on sale in the fall, so you will have to look hard to find them then or grow your own. Start the seedlings in early July if you go with the latter option. If you want to start seeds for spring planting, you should have started in early March. Maybe next year.

Most people buy pansies in flats of six small plants. It is best to buy them early. They will get leggy fairly quickly growing in these six-packs, and leggy plants don’t transplant as well. Make sure they are compact, with just a few blossoms.

Normally, by now, I would have given the botanical name for pansies. Well, there is some disagreement. Some say they are Viola tricolor var. hortensis, while I found at least one website that opts for Viola sect. Melaniuminto. Just call them pansies.

Pansies are closely related to Johnny-jump-ups, which have the botanical name Viola tricolor, without the “var.” Johnny-jump-up flowers are smaller than pansy flowers, but the plants themselves are a bit taller. These violas are native to Europe, and while Shakespeare uses the word pansy in places, he was writing about the plant we now call Johnny-jump-ups, according to Burpee seeds.

Some nurseries sell flats of Johnny-jump-ups alongside their pansies, and most seed companies have the seeds – sometimes alongside the pansy seeds.

In addition to the pansies we buy, we have Johnny-jump-ups that come up as volunteers in our vegetable garden. I can’t remember if we ever planted them there or if the seeds just showed up on their own, but we like them and let them grow.

The problem for me is that the Johnny-jump-ups aren’t the only violas that like to grow in the vegetable garden. We also have the common violet, Viola sororia, which can come in shades from blue to white. These are native to the Eastern United States, but many people consider this native wildflower a weed. I’m afraid I’m in that crowd, at least in part, because they try to crowd out our strawberries. I can’t allow that. We do let them grow in our lawn, however. The blossoms are attractive, the bees like them and I fear that if we pulled the violets out, we might have just bare soil for lawn.

There also are several types of yellow violets; the one native to New England is Viola pubescens, or the yellow forest violet. I have seen those in the woods while fishing, but the only place I can find the seeds online is from the Vermont Wildflower Farm. American Meadows sells Viola pensylvanica, which also is yellow and native to America.

One interesting fact I didn’t know before researching this column is that the flower petals and the young leaves are edible. (What can I say? I’m not a cook.) Martha Stewart says that they have a mild, fresh flavor or a strong wintergreen taste, depending on the variety and part of the plant you eat. The whole flower tastes stronger than just the petals. Cooks often add pansies to salads, where their bright colors are beautiful, and, well, fun, or crystallize them to become dainty candied garnishes for desserts and cakes. Stick with the ones you grew yourself, as others could have been sprayed with pesticides that you definitely don’t want to ingest. I’ll try some this summer, but I might just pull off a couple of petals and snack while I’m in the garden weeding the strawberries.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

filed under: