Sandy’s Garden ... Heart’s Ease

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Heart’s ease, or heartsease, my trusty Chambers Dictionary tells me, is a noun, an alternative name for the pansy.

The poet John Keats, in Sleep and Poetry, wrote: “They shall be appointed poet kings / Who simply tell the most heart-easing things.” Then, in my treasured copy of The Gardener’s Perpetual Almanack, I read that the nineteenth century volume The Language of Flowers, contains these words: “Think of me, Thoughts. The Heart’s-ease, as its French name of pansy or pansie intimates, is in the language of flowers symbolical of remembrance. It is a beautiful variety of the violet, far surpassing that flower in diversity and brilliancy of colour, but possessing little, if any, of the exquisite fragrance for which it is so renowned. Another of its names is ‘love-in-idleness’, under which it has again been celebrated by Shakespeare. This tri-coloured violet is also called, in various country places, ‘jump-up-and-kiss-me-quick’; ‘the herb Trinity’; three-faces-under-a-hood’; kiss-me-behind-the-garden-gate’; and ‘cuddle-me-to-you’, which seems to have altered in time to the less vivacious request of ‘call-me-to-you’.” Heart’s ease is also, according to the almanac, the flower for March 13.

Given the variety of rather suggestive common names given to Viola tricolor … its true botanical designation … the alteration of one common name from ‘cuddle-me-to-you’ to ‘call-me-to-you’ might seem to be better described as less erotic rather than ‘less vivacious’, but the general trend of the plant’s common names is clear. And, lest it be thought that this is a comprehensive list of names, here are a few more: European Wild Pansy, Fer à Cheval, Field Pansy, Herbes Grasses, Johnny-Jump-Up, Ladies’ Delight, Pensée Sauvage, Persicaire Pied Rouge, Pied Rouge and Renouée Persicaire. And one question must be: is Heart’s ease an aphrodisiac?

Well, it depends on which authority is consulted. Some say yes, some think not. Virtually every part of Viola tricolor has some real or alleged herbal value. The leaves, for example, are claimed to be a remedy for lung cancer; the root, it is said, treats bronchitis; a syrup made from the flowers is said to have antiseptic and laxative properties; the ancient Greeks used the flowers to calm inflamed tempers and to induce sleep; and the leaves are credited with the power to treat coughs, help headaches and prevent insomnia. It is certainly true that parts of the plant can be eaten, the leaves being treated as similar to spinach while the flowers can be incorporated into both salads and desserts. More doubtful claims are made for the leaves, which are thought by some people to offer protection against every kind of evil. A list of the supposed properties of the leaves is, to say the least, impressive: “Use for: protection; luck; love; lust; wishes; peace and healing.” (The list is non-specific as to whether the leaves protect one from the lust of another or prevent the development of lust for another.) But here we do have a claim related to lust; and another claim is that the flowers are indeed an aphrodisiac, particularly when mixed with periwinkle, while our forefathers believed that the plant’s sap had anti-inflammatory properties, cleansed the blood and strengthened the powers of the memory.

All of which leaves unanswered the question as to how Viola tricolor is most commonly called Heart’s ease. And yes, yet another claim made for the flowers is that they are beneficial in the treatment of heart disease, giving rise to the name ‘Heart’s ease’. But, as ever, nothing in this article is to be taken as an endorsement of any of the claims made for this plant; and do not try any of these supposed treatments on your own initiative at home.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society