One of the most popular garden flowers, colorful pansies make for a bright addition to the spring flower bed. Available in a range of colors, as well as variegated or bicolor varieties the availability of these cheery little plants has only helped to increase their popularity. But are pansies perennials?
If you are considering adding the plants to your garden, you may want to know whether they will return year after year or just provide you with one bright burst of color. Read on to find out if pansies are perennials.
As well as discussing the lifespan of the plants, this article also explains the differences between annual and perennials and shares some helpful pansy care tips, enabling you to get the most out of the plants however you choose to grow them.
The spring flowering pansy is one of the most popular bedding plants.
What are Pansies?
The pansy is a compact, dainty spring flowering plant. A popular choice for providing early and late season color to floral displays and containers, the pansy is often planted in groups alongside spring flowering bulbs such as tulips or daffodils.
A compact plant, typically reaching a height of 6 to 12 inches, the pansy thrives in mild, spring weather. At this time of year, before the emergence of large annuals, these colorful blooms are at their best.
Happy in rich soil and damp, cool climates you can also grow pansies in shady spots or containers.
Known for their fast growing, brightly colored flowers, which are available in a range of colors, the blooms sit above slightly heart-shaped, overlapping petals. As well as single colored blooms you can also find variegated or bi-colored types. Additionally, many types produce flowers with face-like center markings providing further interest.
Colorful and distinctive, the pansy is suitable for a range of planting schemes.
Garden Pansy or Wild Pansy?
In general there are two types of pansy, the Garden pansy and the Wild pansy. In many garden stores and plant nurseries the two types are often sold together. The plants share the same growing needs and care preferences.
Wild pansy types are sometimes sold under the names Love-in-Idleness, Johnny-Jump-up and Hearteases.
Garden types of pansy are more colorful than Wild types. Garden types are hybrids. This means that they were purposefully created by crossbreeding with European species to create unique, resilient flowers. Most Garden types belong to members of the Violaceae and Viola tricolor plant families.
So are pansies perennials? Keep reading to find out.
Annuals or Perennials, What is the Difference?
If you are considering adding a group of pansy flowers to your garden you may be wondering are pansies perennials? But what are perennials?
Perennials are plants that come back every year, sometimes with the help of a little winter protection. Perennial plants can last for a number of years depending on the care they receive, their growing conditions and climate.
Most perennials can survive winter temperatures as long as the winter isn’t too extreme.
This is in contrast to annual plants that last for just one year.
Annuals grow from spring to fall before fading in the winter as soon as the first frost hits. They are typically at their most productive in the summer. If you are growing an annual plant you need to replace it with a new plant the following spring.
The pansy is a heat sensitive plant.
Some perennials are treated as annuals because of their sensitivity to extremes of heat or cold. With a little extra care, depending on your growing conditions, you should be able to keep the plants for a number of years.
Finally, some plants are classed as biennials. Not as long lasting as perennials, biennials typically return for a second, sometimes third year before dying away.
Now that we know the difference between annual and perennials it is time to answer the question, are pansies perennials?
Are Pansies Perennials?
In general pansies are regarded as annual plants regardless of the climate and growing conditions they are in. However, this is not the entire truth. Whether the plants are annuals or perennials depends on where you live.
The pansy has a low tolerance for heat. This means that they struggle in the heat of summer.
Additionally, the pansy has a higher tolerance for winter weather. This means that the plants can happily survive a mild or slightly chilly winter. Breeding means that many newer varieties and hybrids display pleasing levels of cold weather resilience.
Many newer types can survive exposure to temperatures below freezing. However, heat tolerance is still an issue.
Consequently, in mild climates pansies are perennials, returning year after year. In warmer climates, USDA Zones 9 and higher, the plants are rarely sustainable as perennials.
Perennials, the pansy struggles when temperatures become too warm.
Best described as short lived perennials, the pansy can cease flowering and fade in the summer heat.
The term short lived perennials is used to describe plants that are not biennials because their lifecycle isn’t complete at the end of the second year. Instead they may last for 3 to 5 years, longer than annuals but nowhere near as long as some other perennials.
While these plants can be encouraged to return for a few years, it takes a lot of work. For this reason the pansy is typically planted as an annual regardless of the climate.
What separates pansies from true annual plants is that they die away in hot summer weather. Most annuals die back in the winter. As pansies fade in the summer gardeners replace them with colorful, summer annuals.
Pansies as Perennials in Different USDA Zones
How you treat the pansy depends largely on the USDA Zone that you are in. Most varieties that are classed as short-lived perennials or biennials are hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 8. Annual types do not have a USDA Zone.
For readers new to the concept of planting zones, our guide not only explains which zone you are in but also highlights a range of suitable plants.
The lifespan of the pansy varies depending on your growing zone.
Growers in USDA Zones 2 to 3 should treat pansies as annuals and not as perennials. Start pansy seeds undercover and transplant in late spring, after hardening off. In these cooler zones the summer may not be too hot for the pansy, meaning that flowering can continue throughout the summer. The plants then die away in the winter.
In USDA Zones 4b to 8a you can grow the plants as perennials, with care. Mulch the pansies to protect them during the winter months. A layer of mulch during the summer can also help to keep the plants cool and prolong flowering.
The plants go dormant during the colder period before returning the following spring, as temperatures warm. If the second summer isn’t too hot the pansy may set seed after flowering.
Pansies in USDA Zones 8b to 11 won’t survive the summer months because it is too hot. In these areas, treat the plants as annuals, planting in spring for early season color.
In some areas, such as California where the weather is warm but moderate, pansies are perennials. However, unless the weather is perfect they are more easily grown as annuals.
In areas outside the USDA Zones listed above, the plants either die in the summer because it is too hot or in the winter, when it is too cold. Exposure to either of these temperature extremes breaks the plants natural growth cycle. However, this doesn’t mean that growers in these areas can’t still enjoy the bright blooms of the pansy.
For growers in colder climates, the winter pansy, V. Heimalis, is a good choice. These hardy types share many of the same growing conditions as more common pansies. The main difference is that they tolerate cold weather far better. V. Heimalis plants typically become dormant in the winter before returning in the spring, filling your garden with vibrant color.
Viola Heimalis plants tolerate frosts.
Growing Pansies as Perennials
If you can, growing pansies as perennials has a number of advantages. Not only are pansies low maintenance plants, encouraging them to return every year saves you money by reducing the amount you spend on new plants each year.
Sadly pansies are only perennials in some growing zones. These heat sensitive plants can die away if the weather becomes too cold.
These plants struggle in hard, dry soil.
If you are growing pansies as perennials, the key point to remember is that the plants dislike hard, dry soil. Mulch is the key to keeping the plants happy and healthy.
Mulching not only protects the soil but also the plant life that exists beneath soil level. Mulch does this by creating a protective layer of air space which keeps the soil moist, enabling the plant’s root system to continue to absorb moisture and nutrients during hot and freezing spells of weather.
When mulching, do not allow the mulch to contact the flower or the stem. The main benefit of mulching is maintaining soil moisture levels. Since the soil already has moisture when you apply the mulch, allowing the mulch to touch the plant can lead to fungal disease developing.
In the winter, as growth slows or plants become dormant, add a fresh layer of mulch. At this stage you can safely cover the plants with the mulch. For dormant plants there is little risk of disease developing during prolonged spells of cold weather. Airstar Plant Covers can also be used to protect plants.
Some gardeners like to remove the protective mulch once the final frost date has passed. If you forget, or choose to leave the mulch in place, new growth still forces its way through.
Growing Pansies as Annuals
While cultivating pansies as perennials is possible, it is more common to grow the plants as annuals.
Growing annual plants provides you with lots of vibrant spring color. You can also change the plants each spring. Introducing new varieties or color schemes helps to keep your garden looking fresh and interesting.
There are very few places in the United States that have an ideal climate to grow perennial pansies. Growers outside 9b in California may struggle. For many people it is easier to grow the plants as annuals.
In variable climates annual pansies can hibernate, returning later in the year for a second or third display.
In certain, milder USDA Zones you can also use annual pansies to add color to winter gardens.
Growing as annual plants enables you to change your planting scheme every year.
The catch to growing pansies as annuals is that they don’t behave like other annuals. Technically, annual plants start growing in the spring, thrive during the summer months and fade in the fall. Heat sensitive pansies don’t always follow this cycle.
In cool or frigid climates that never get too hot, the plants go through the typical life cycle of an annual plant. While you can attempt to overwinter pansies, their ability to survive the winter largely depends on how severe the weather is.
In hot climates the pansy has no chance of surviving the summer. Instead the plant thrives in the fall, winter and spring. This means that in hot climates while pansies are annuals, the life-cycle is in reverse i.e. they grow and flower during the winter and die away in the summer.
Pansy Care Tips
When buying your spring bedding plants, choose stocky bushy types with lots of buds. Avoid plants that already have lots of open flowers. These are stressed to near exhaustion from flowering in a small pot. While they may look appealing in the garden store, these plants struggle to provide long lasting interest and color to your garden.
Whether they are annuals or perennials the pansy is a low maintenance plant.
As the spring flowers fade, cut the plants back before they start to set seed. This encourages new growth to develop. As with many flowering plants, removing spent blooms encourages new growth and more flowers to emerge.
The pansy is usually at its best when planted in partial shade. In cooler climates you can also plant in full sun. Avoid areas that are too dark, a lack of light can deter flowering.
The pansy is not a fussy plant. While they tolerate a range of soil conditions the pansy is at its best in loose, rich soil which is slightly acidic. A soil pH of 6.0 to 6.2 is ideal. If you aren’t sure, a soil test kit can tell you the pH level of your soil.
Heavy feeding plants, amend your soil with mushroom compost either during or before planting.
Temperature and Humidity
As we have already noted, the pansy is a cool weather plant. They dislike the heat and noticeably struggle as the weather warms.
The pansy does best in consistently moist, not soggy, soil. During dry spells, water regularly. This prolongs flowering and the lifespan of the plant.
When overwintering most plants there is generally no need to water. The pansy is different. Unlike other plants, pansies do not hibernate during the winter. Instead these cold-weather plants continue to develop roots. Hibernation only occurs when temperatures fall below 25 ℉.
The best time to water overwintering pansies is just before a freeze when their roots can still absorb water. This helps the roots and plants to remain healthy as the ground hardens. If you forget to water before the freeze, wait until your soil thaws out before watering. Apply about an inch of water.
Like other long blooming plants the pansy appreciates a regular application of fertilizer. Be careful not to over feed. Too much fertilizer can cause the plants to become leggy.
Most plants, in favorable conditions and good soil, respond well to monthly foliar feeding. When feeding the plants, use a balanced fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro Shake ‘N’ Feed. Follow the instructions on the packet before applying.
Some hardy types such as Ice Pansy tolerate light snows and cooler climes. In areas that experience light frosts, deadhead the plants and cover with a protective layer of mulch. This should protect the plants from the winter frosts.
When the soil is permeable, or not frozen, water well. New growth emerges the following spring.
The plants require help if you wish to overwinter them.
When temperatures fall below 25 ℉ the plants start to hibernate. If these temperatures are common in your growing zone you need to prepare the plants for winter dormancy. This is particularly important if the temperatures at sunset and at night are 25 ℉ or lower. Even if the daytime temperatures climb above this threshold, thawing the soil, you still need to protect the plants.
Mulching the soil around and over the plants helps to protect the root system. Water the soil well before a freeze occurs. You can also add some more protective mulch if necessary. In the spring, once temperatures warm, your pansy plants should re-emerge.
If you don’t want to overwinter the plants, allow the spent blooms to go to seed. Volunteer seeds may emerge the following spring.
How to Encourage Flowering
The vigorous growth habit of the pansy means that they tend to flower well in most conditions.
To encourage larger flowers or more growth apply balanced liquid feed once a month. Switch to a bone meal fertilizer, such as Burpee Bone Meal Fertilizer, just before the flowering season begins.
Cutting back leggy plants makes more space for new flowers to emerge. Finally, deadhead the flowers fade. This encourages late season blooms to develop.
If you do not remove spent flower heads, the seeds can drop and take root. This means that in cooler areas, unexpected plants may emerge the following spring.
Common Pests and Problems
Slugs can be a problem, particularly in wet conditions or if you have planted in partial shade. Our guide to getting rid of slugs is packed full of useful tips if slugs pose a problem in your garden.
Aphid infestations may occur. These can be treated by wiping neem oil on the affected leaves. You can also wash the pests away with a blast from a garden hose.
Plants may become leggy when the nights start to warm up. Warm weather encourages the plants to stretch.
Another cause of legginess may be a lack of fertilizer. Too little fertilizer can starve plants particularly when flowering. Remember, flowering takes lots of energy. If your pansy plants become leggy, cut them back by up to one-third, leaving some foliage in place. The plants grow back more compact and vigorous.
Growing in Pots
Most types of pansy have an upright growth habit. This coupled with their colorful blooms makes the plant a good choice for using in pots and window boxes. In general, plants growing in pots have the same care needs as those in the ground.
These are good pot plants.
Remember pansies dislike soggy roots so use a loose, well draining potting mix. Your chosen containers should have lots of drainage holes. Working a slow release fertilizer into the mix helps to promote healthy growth. Continue to fertilize once every 2 to 3 weeks with a balanced feed.
Pinch off any leggy growth and deadhead regularly.
Growing from Seed
Whilst commonly sold as bedding plants, you can also grow from seed. This is often more affordable and enables you to choose from a wider range of plants. You can either purchase seed packets or harvest your own by allowing spent flowers to go to seed.
Plants grown from spent flower seeds can be disappointing. This is because most types of pansy are F1 hybrids. The term F1 hybrid means that the seed does not grow true to type. Instead it reverts to flowering as one of the genetic parents, usually Viola tricolor or Johnny-Jump-Up.
F1 seeds available for purchase are developed by hand-pollinating one plant with pollen from another.
Stratifying seeds for 2 weeks improves the chances of germination but this is not necessary. Most seeds sold in stores and online have been stratified.
Fill a Grow Green Seed Starter Tray with fresh seed-starting mix. Moisten and sow the seeds on top. Cover the seed trays with a plastic lid. Pansy seeds need darkness to germinate.
Germination takes around 2 weeks. Once seedlings emerge, remove the cover and place the tray in a bright location. Continue to moisten the soil with a Plant Mister Spray Bottle.
When the seedlings reach a few inches in height and true leaves have emerged, transplant them into small pots. Continue to grow in a bright location until the weather is warm enough for transplanting outside. Remember to harden off the seedlings before transplanting.
How to Plant
Prepare the soil by weeding and breaking up large clumps of earth before planting. This is also the best time to work in amendments such as compost.
Make a hole in the soil large enough to hold the plant. To test whether the hole is large enough, place the pot holding the plant in the hole. The pot should fit comfortably inside with the lip of the pot sitting in line with the soil.
Remove the plant from the pot and place it centrally in the hole. Backfill the hole and water well.
Popular Types of Pansy
Much of the pansies popularity is down to the wide range of varieties and colors available. You can find pansies in a rainbow of colors as well as bi-colored or marked varieties. The size of the plants can also vary.
Some of the most reliable series include:
- Bolero, this series produces large, ruffled semi-double blooms. It does well in both the spring and fall.
- Bingo is a large flowering series available in 14 colors including pale blues and deep burgundies. Bingo typically flowers earlier than the popular Majestic Giants series.
- Cool Wave is a fast growing series popular for its vigorous floral habit. Similar to Cool Wave Petunias, Cool Wave pansies have a similar spreading habit making them a good choice as spiller plants in pots and hanging baskets.
- Freefall is a day-neutral, trailing series. Pots and planters provide a great way to showcase these colorful plants.
- Princess is a compact plant series which produces dainty flowers in a range of monochromatic colors from cream to deep purple with bright yellow centers.
- Joker produces bicolored flowers with pronounced faces.
- Matrix is a reliable series that produces 3 to 4 inch wide blooms in shades of white, purple, rose, blue and orange as well as some bicolor or blotched types.
- Frizzle Sizzle is a distinctive ruffled series producing blooms in a range of colors as well as bicolored, blotched and whiskered types.
- Whiskers produce flowers in a range of colors as well as some bicolored types. As the name suggests, all of these are whiskered.
- Anytime is a small, heat tolerant cultivar producing delicate blooms in shades of yellow, blue and white. For something a little more interesting, you can also find whiskered and bicolored types.
The pansy is a reliable companion for spring flowering bulbs.
As we have seen, the answer to the question are pansies perennials is not a simple yes or no. The lifespan of the plants can be affected by a number of factors including the weather, growing conditions, how you choose to treat and grow them
Typically grown as short-lived perennials, these are cool weather loving plants. With the right care, in areas with cool summers, pansies are perennials, returning for a number of years to add early season interest and color to your garden.