I enjoy crosswords and recently the answer to one clue which made reference to ‘pansies’ was ‘heartsease’.
I did actually know that wild pansies are commonly known by that name … ‘heartsease’, but I realised that I had absolutely no idea why this was the case and set about finding out.
But I am not much the wiser! “In ancient days,” I learn on the Internet, “the plant was much used for its potency in love charms, hence perhaps its name of Heartsease. It is this flower that plays such an important part as a love-charm in the Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “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.” Those are the words of William Shakespeare; and apparently most Elizabethans … that is, most English citizens during the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth between 1558 and 1603 … called the wild pansy ‘heartsease’ and associated the plant with an innocent, unspoilt love. One might be forgiven for thinking that it was rather more than innocent love they had in mind but rather Platonic love, for the wild pansy is noted for the remarkable fact that the open flowers do not produce seeds. Instead, the seeds come from unopened, self-pollinating flowers at the end of the flowering season. And as for its common names, they are legion! Love-in-idleness, Johnny-jump-up, heartsease or hearts-ease, love-lies-bleeding, loving idol, cuddle me, call-me-to-you, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, meet-me-in-the-entry, kiss-her-in-the-buttery, kit-run-in-the-fields, pink-o’-the-eye, godfathers and godmothers, herb Trinitatis, herb constancy and bouncing Bet are but a selection of the plant’s country names.
Botanically, the wild pansy is Viola tricolour … yes, with ‘tricolor’ spelled in what we would regard as the American way. The generic name … Viola … is the Latin name for the plant; and the specific name … tricolor … comes from the Latin word meaning ‘three-coloured’. The most common name ‘pansy’ comes from an older form of the word, ‘pawnce’; and pawnce comes, in turn, from the French word ‘pensée’ meaning ‘a thought’ or ‘the act of thinking’.. The wild pansy is an annual plant, meaning that the seed sprout, the plant flowers and the next generation of seed are produced in the same year. It occurs naturally throughout Britain and in Arctic Europe, North Africa, Siberia and northwest India among many habitats. Garden pansies in their many forms have been bred from these wild flowers and nowadays come in such bewildering variety that it can be hard to believe that they are all closely related, the range of stunning colours, the multiplicity of flower sizes and the choice of annual varieties or perennial varieties giving the gardener a huge choice of these easily-grown, attractive plants. I like pansies in my garden, particularly winter-flowering varieties.
However, to return to the wild pansy or heartsease, it’s a small plant of creeping habit which is unlikely to grow more than six inches in height … or fifteen centimetres if you prefer Standard International Units … which is usually found in cultivated grassland and on wasteland. It prefers acid or neutral soil and partial shade and produces its flowers over a long season, from April to September in an average year. These flowers are usually three-coloured, perming any three from these four - purple, blue, yellow and white. Our ancestors used heartsease to treat epilepsy, asthma, eczema, bronchitis and symptoms of the common cold; and they used the flowers to make yellow, green and blue-green fabric dyes. Rather charmingly, the wild pansy droops its head at night and in wet weather so that its face doesn’t get wet. And I’m on its side, for I don’t like the rain in my face either.