The wild pansy, or heartsease

Viola tricolor (2)This beautiful little flower was photographed on the sand dunes of Aberffraw on Anglesey.   The wild pansy, Viola tricolor, has so many different names: ‘Heartsease’, ‘Love-in-idleness’, ‘Love-lies-bleeding’; and in Welsh ‘Blodeuyn Wyneb Mair’ (Mary’s face), ‘Llysiau’r Drindod’ (Plant of the Trinity), ‘Caru’n Ofer’ (Love in vain).

Viola tricolor is described by Collins’ Complete British Wild Flowers as ‘an annual of cultivated ground’, with flowers that are ‘yellow and violet’; it goes on to say that there is a yellow sub-species, Viola tricolor curtisii, which is a perennial.  I am not completely sure whether these examples from Aberffraw belong to the species or the sub-species.  I am inclined to believe they are ssp. curtisii, which is also known as the dune pansy;  however, they showed many colour variations including cream, pure yellow, and tri-coloured (violet, white and yellow).

The word ‘pansy’ comes from the French ‘pensée’, meaning ‘thought’.  In the late 18th century the brilliant economist and surgeon François Quesnay was appointed to the court of Louis XV in Versailles;  the king called Quesnay his ‘thinker’, and gave him a coat of arms decorated with three pansy flowers.

Wild pansies flower from April to October, and they are pollinated by insects such as bees. The plants have a creeping or rambling habit, with small lanceolate leaves;  the flowers are borne on long stalks usually rising a few inches above the ground.  They prefer sandy soils and they are described as being widespread throughout Britain, but we have encountered them only rarely;  they have also been introduced to North America.

Beloved by herbalists for centuries, wild pansies were important ingredients in cures for epilepsy and skin complaints, as well as respiratory problems and chest infections. The flowers were also useful for making dyes.

Heartsease in Shakespeare…

The wild pansy is mentioned in two of Shakespeare’s plays.  In Hamlet, Ophelia, who is mad with grief at the death of her father, rambles on about strewing herbs:  “And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…” (Act IV, Scene 5.)

And in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon commands Puck to bring him “…a little western flower / Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound / And maidens call it love-in-idleness.” (Act II, Scene 1.)   It is the effect of this natural aphrodisiac that causes the mayhem and entertainment of the entire play!  You could say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is woven around the magical properties of heartsease.

Viola tricolor (3)

From these wild species, among others, our cultivated garden pansies are descended;  I love these, too, but they don’t have quite the same fey beauty as their wild ancestors.

Mountain pansy, Viola lute

Viola lutea, the mountain pansy

A similar species, the mountain pansy (Viola lutea) can be found in the grassy uplands of North Wales, northern England and Scotland.  This one is predominantly mauve, with a yellow centre.


Photos copyright © Colin Woolf


  1. Viola is one of my favourite families. The violets in particular are so delicately beautiful and dainty, and they are such bold spots of colour for such tiny plants!

  2. These darlings are so pretty. They grow around my garden in an intense violet/yellow/white colour combination. These seemingly delicate flowers endure extreme cold (-25C!) and snow here. In Spanish we call them Pensamientos (thoughts). The etymology of the name is very intresting, Jo!.

    • Hi Carmen, I am glad that you have them too! They are so lovely. Very interesting to know the Spanish name – and it’s surprising but very good news that they can survive such extreme cold!

  3. Delightful! That first photo makes me want to go on holiday to the seaside. 🙂

  4. Like your post on primroses, this made me appreciate the delicacy and beauty of the pansy, which I tend to see mainly in flowerbeds.

    • They’re so pretty, aren’t they? I think they must fade a little in the sun, as the older flowers appear lighter. I’m glad you enjoyed it – thank you!

  5. There are very sweet, we have lots all over the garden 🙂

  6. I have seen some wild pansies near rivers and forests. They are very beautiful! 🙂

  7. These are so much more beautiful than the cultivated garden variety. The colors of the latter are quite bold but I’m simply not attracted to them. These wild ones are so much more appealing.

    • You’re right, Dave, they have much more appeal and charm than the garden ones. Although I must confess I also have a weakness for garden pansies, no matter how gaudy! 🙂

      • They are a very popular flower to plant in Texas in early early spring but it heats up so quickly and they wilt. Maybe that is why I don’t enjoy them so much.

  8. Thank you for the lore on these flowers. In my part of the US we call them ‘Johnny Jump Ups’. I have mostly seen the purple ones that you have named Mountain Pansies.

    • You’re welcome, I’m delighted to know you enjoyed it! I love that name for heartsease! 🙂 I would love to know how that came about! Mountain pansies are so beautiful.

  9. Thank you for this information, Jo. Did you know that in Shakespeare’s time there was a dance called ‘heartsease’. It is very gentle and may have been the dance which was being played when Juliet and Romeo met in the ballroom. Pam, UK

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