The gardens centres are still full of half-hardy bedding plants all pining for the subtropics while the chill wind whistles round them, and the rain batters down. Geraniums won’t flower, let alone grow. Petunia flowers rot… Horrid. Still, the Victorians had rotten summers too, and though all the bedding plants from Peru and Brazil became wildly popular during that epoch, some gardeners found that the most reliable flowerers, ones with some of the subtlest colours, and ones which were weatherproof to boot, came from very much nearer home. Here’s their story:
V. x wittrockiana
The garden pansy or viola has a complicated history involving several species. When it began began, in the early nineteenth century, hybridisation was probably based on just two, V. tricolor and V. lutea.
V. tricolor is the native Wild Pansy or Heartsease, which has been in gardens at least since medieval times, and appears in many medieval illuminations. Gerard and Parkinson both grew it (Parkinson had a double sort), and John Evelyn planted it in his parterre at Sayes Court in 1687.
V. lutea is also native to Britain, and is mentioned by both Gerard and Parkinson. However, it seems to have been the more exotic central European subspecies, V. lutea var. sudetica, which was initially used in hybridisation to make the modern pansy.
Two aristocrats and their gardeners are recorded as being instrumental in this, both quite independently of each other, and both in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Lady Mary Bennet and her gardener, Mr. Richardson, grew all sorts of Viola species, including V. tricolor and V. lutea, in a heart-shaped bed. Amongst the resultant seedlings were found plants that went on to produce the first pansies. The second story is more prosaic; Lord Gambier and his gardener, Mr. Thompson, simply selected interesting seedlings from V. lutea. James Lee, a nurseryman from Hammersmith became interested, and before long had produced many exciting new sorts.
These were then taken up by the florists, who made strict rules regarding the development of the flower. Progress was extraordinarily fast; there were four hundred named varieties of what were by then called Show Pansies described in a monograph issued between 1835 and 1838. The florists’ rules restricted the potential of the flower so much that the next innovation had to come from the Continent, where there were no such self-imposed restrictions. Show Pansies, exported to France and Belgium, developed other characteristics, and the results were flowers with handsome and strongly blotched petals. These were re-imported into Britain around 1850, and called Fancy Pansies. They gradually superseded the ossified Show Pansies in popularity. Few old named cultivars of Show and Fancy Pansies are available today. Modern seed strains have to substitute. Chosen with care, they can approximate to the size and colouring of the old flowers. Gorgeous ones still around include the heavenly Maggie Mott in soft lavender blue…
PS. If you’d like to read more stories of old fashioned flowers, you might like my OLD FASHIONED FLOWERS, now on Kindle, and selling via Amazon