Perhaps because Pansies are annuals and small, those of us who aren’t gardeners can easily miss the beauty and the message they carry. I only became aware of them when, beginning many years ago, Linda began to plant them in her garden and in a long flower box on our front porch where they greeted us every time we left the house and returned. Because of their saturated colors and varying “faces” depending on the light and weather, I often photographed them.
The flower gets its name from “pensé,” the French word for thought or remembrance. The blossoms were sent to someone, ostensibly to say “remember me” or “I remember you.” First bred from the Wild Pansy in Victorian times, the flower was considered a love potion. Shakespeare, who once described it as “Love-In-Idleness,” cited it as the reason why Titania fell in love with an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Pansy blossoms have five petals. They’re a member of the large Viola (violet) family native to the temperate Northern Hemisphere, including Hawaii, Australia and the Andes. They like moist and slightly shaded conditions and are relatively disease and pest free.
One type of blossom, particularly the yellows and some blues and purples, have thin black lines called penciling. It’s said that the pansy’s delicate aroma is more pronounced in the early morning and at dusk. This is especially the case with the yellow and blue blossoms. Both the pansy leaves and the flowers are edible and high in vitamins A and C. They’ve been used to make syrup and dyes. And the Greeks cultivated several of the viola species, including the pansy, for medicinal use.
Because the word and the gesture of giving pansies relates to rememberance, and considering that gardeners speak of the blossom as a “face,” I’m reminded of ancient Maya stelae, carved and erected in large part to depict a ruler so he would be remembered. In cultures that venerate ancestors, when a person dies it doesn’t end their relationships or influence within a family or the community. This is because the spirit of the person lives on, just in another world. And they continue to have influence in the world, as long as they are remembered. By continuing to have conversations with the deceased and offering them gifts—for example, as Mexicans do on the Day Of The Dead—the deceased ancestors can appeal to saints and others in the spirit realm on behalf of petitioners to keep them safe, healthy and so on.
For indigenous people, to “re-member” is to maintain the spirit of a deceased person as a member of a family or community. The faces of Maya kings are prominent on monuments, buildings and artifacts because being remembered kept them alive and extended their influence beyond the grave. Just as the faces of kings had power, so the faces of pansies can have power—if we take from their faces the memory of someone we lost.
After gaining this insight, I decided that the face of a particular yellow pansy in our flower box will, every time I see it this Spring, will remind me of Joanne, my deceased sister. Yellow, because her smile and hearty laughter brightened the day for everyone she met. Indeed, she has been re-membered by many. And she is contributing.
the black lines
on her colorful five-petaled face—
a floral megaphone—
call us to remember a loved one.
David L. Smith
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