Dorothea Lynde Dix, 19th century crusader for the mentally ill, was also a champion for a special blossom. She observed, in flowery prose no less, that “no flower (not excepting even the queenly rose) claims to be so universal a favorite as the viola tricolor; none currently has been honored with so rich a variety of names, at once expressive of grace, delicacy and tenderness.”
The flower viola tricolor, better known as johnny-jump-up or heart’s-ease, inspires more love than insanity. According to Shakespeare, though, the two states of mind are pretty much identical. In his Midsummer Night’s Dream, this plant plays a pivotal role in the plot, where it is known as ‘love-in-idleness.’ Its juice, squeezed on Titania’s eyes, makes her fall in love with the donkey-headed Bottom:
“Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower, the herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make a man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”
It was this wild plant that led to the popular and plentiful cultivated pansy we now see for sale everywhere. In the mid-1800s, a gardener by the name of William Thompson worked to create the now ubiquitous pansy. He is credited with hybridizing and crossbreeding Viola tricolor to produce the plant that became an instant craze.
Pansies provided both affection and health. As told by Shakespeare, all pansies were at one time white, until Cupid’s arrow pieced them and they became purple and yellow. The new color provided magic powers; a love potion could be made from the plant’s leaves. In the unfortunate event that the lovers came down with venereal disease, syrup was made from the flowers to provide a cure. Quite handy!
Take heed, however, since it is noted that pansies will bring love only to women and are considered a bad luck gift when proffered to the other sex.
The word, pansy, comes from the French ‘pensee,’ which means ‘a reflection or thought’ and likely referred to the flower’s dark center that resembles the human face. Some varieties lack the dark center or can be striped.
The striped varieties hold unusual powers, including the ability to tell the future. Choose a petal and observe the stripes or lines. Four lines means hope; seven brings consistency in love (and if the center line is longest, a Sunday wedding day is guaranteed); eight foresees fickleness; nine, a change of heart; and disappointment and an early grave will come to those whose petal has eleven lines. If the lines lean left and are thick, trouble is coming your way, and right-leaning lines presage prosperity.
Additional assets of the pansy are to be admired. Its scent is prized and can be enhanced by sniffing at dawn and dusk, or smelling the blue or yellow-colored flowers that are reputed to have a stronger scent. Or try a taste of these colorful classics. Considered edible, pansy flowers are high in vitamin A and C. Use them to flavor drinks, in salads or as a garnish.
So many options for so powerful a plant that Hamlet couldn’t help but remind us to “Pray, love, remember: and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.