Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock



Drawn by Anna C. Stryke.

The Pansy

Teacher's Story

dropcap image OME people are pansy-faced and some pansies are human-faced, and for some occult reason this puts people and pansies on a distinctly chummy basis. When we analyze the pansy face, we find that the dark spots at the bases of the side petals make the eyes, the lines radiating from them looking quite eyelashy. The opening to the nectar-tube makes the nose, while the spot near the base of the lower petal has to do for a mouth, the nectar guiding-lines being not unlike whiskers. Meanwhile, the two upper petals give a "high-browed" look to the pansy countenance, and make it a wise and knowing little face.

The pansy nectar is hidden in the spur made by the lower petal extending behind the flower. The guiding lines on the lower and side petals all converge, pointing directly to the opening which leads to this nectar-well, telling the secret to every bee that flies. Moreover, the broad lower petal is a platform for the lady bee to alight upon, while she probes the nectar-well with her tongue.


The little pansy-man.

But at the door leading to the nectar-well sits a little man; his head is green, he wears a white cape with a scalloped, reddish brown collar, and he sits with his bandy legs pushed back into the spur as if he were taking a foot bath in nectar. This little pansy man has plenty of work to do; for his mouth, which is large and at the top of his green head, is the stigma. The cape is made of five overlapping stamens, the brown, scalloped collar being the anthers; his legs consist of prolongations of the two lower stamens. And when the bee probes the nectar-well with her tongue, she tickles the little man's feet so that his head and shoulders wriggle; and thus she brushes the pollen dust from his collar against her fuzzy face, and at the same time his mouth receives the pollen from her dusty coat.

As the pansy matures, the little man grows still more manlike; after a time he sheds his anther cape, and we can see that his body is the ribbed seed-pod. He did not eat pollen for nothing, for he is full of growing seeds. Sometimes the plush brushes, which are above his head in the pansy flower, become filled with pollen, and perhaps he gets a mouthful of it, although these brushes are supposed to keep out intruders.

The pansy sepals, five in number, are fastened at about one-third of their length, their heart-shaped bases making a little green ruffle around the stem where it joins the flower. There is one sepal above and two at each side, but none below the nectar-spur. The flower stem is quite short and always bends politely so the pansy can look sidewise at us instead of staring straight upward. The plant stem is angled and crooked and stout. In form, the leaves are most capricious; some are long and pointed, others wide and rounded. The edges are slightly scalloped and the leaf may have at its base a pair of large, deeply lobed stipules. In a whole pansy bed it would be quite impossible to find two leaves just alike.

The pansy ripens many seeds. The ribbed seed-capsule, with its base set comfortably in the faithful sepals, finally opens in three valves and the many seeds are scattered. To send them as far afield as possible, the edges of each valve of the pod curl inward, and snap the seeds out as boys snap apple seeds from the thumb and finger.

Pansies like deep, rich and cool, moist soil. They are best suited to a northern climate, and prefer the shady side of a garden to the full sunshine. The choice varieties are perpetuated through cuttings. They may be stuck in the open ground in summer in a half-shady place and should be well-watered in dry weather. All sorts of pansies are readily raised from seed sown in spring or early summer, and seedlings, when well established, do not suffer, as a rule, from winter frosts.

The general sowing for the production of early spring bloom is made out of doors in August, while seeds sown indoors from February to June will produce plants to flower intermittently during the late summer and fall months. When sowing pansy seed in August, sow the seed broadcast in a seed-bed out of doors, cover very lightly with fine soil or well-rotted manure, and press the seed in with a small board; then mulch the seed-bed with long, strawy horse manure, from which the small particles have been shaken off, to the thickness of one inch, so as to have the soil well and evenly covered. At the end of two weeks the plants will be up. Then remove the straw gradually, a little at a time, selecting a dull day if possible. Keep the bed moist.

If the pansies are allowed to ripen seeds the season of bloom will be short, for when its seeds are scattered the object of the plant's life is accomplished. Besides, the plant has not vitality enough to perfect seeds and continue its bloom, and flowers borne with the forming seeds are smaller than the earlier ones. But if the flowers are kept plucked as they open, the plants persistently put forth new buds. The plucked flowers will remain in good condition longer if picked in the early morning before the bees begin paying calls, for a fertilized flower fades more quickly than one which has received no pollen.


Photo by Verne Morton.

Lesson CLIII

The Pansy

Leading thought—The pansy is a member of the violet family. The flower often resembles a face; the colors, markings and fragrance all attract the bees, who visit it for the nectar hidden in the spur of the lower petal.

Method—The children naturally love pansies because of the resemblance of these flowers to quaint little faces. They become still more interested after they see the little man with the green head, which appears in the flower as it fades. A more practical interest may be cultivated by studying the great numbers of varieties in the seed catalogs and learning their names. This is one of the studies which leads directly to gardening. There are many beautiful pansy poems which should be read in connection with the lesson.


1. How does the pansy flower resemble a face? Where are the eyes? The nose? The mouth? How many petals make the pansy forehead? The cheeks? The chin?

2. Where is the nectar in the pansy? Which petal forms the nectar-tube?

3. Describe how a bee gets the nectar. Where does she stand while probing with her tongue?

4. Where is the pollen in the pansy? What is the peculiar shape of the anthers? How do the two lower stamens differ in form from the three upper ones?

5. Where is the stigma? Does the bee's tongue go over it or under it to reach the nectar? Describe the pansy arrangement for dusting the bee with pollen and for getting pollen from her tongue.

6. Observe the soft little brushes at the base of the two side petals. What do you think they are for?

7. Take a fading flower; remove the petals, and see the little man sitting with his crooked legs in the nectar-tube. What part of the flower makes the man's head? What parts form his cape? Of what is his pointed, scalloped collar formed?

8. How many sepals has the pansy? Describe them. How are they attached? When the flower fades and the petals fall, do the sepals also fall?

9. Where in the flower is the young seed-pod? Describe how this looks after the petals have fallen.

10. Describe how the seed-pod opens. How many seeds are there in it? How are they scattered?

11. Study the pansy stem. Is it solid? Is it smooth or rough? Is it curved? Does it stand up straight or partially recline on the ground?

12. Take a pansy leaf and sketch it with the stipules at its base. Can you find two pansy leaves exactly alike in shape, color and size?

13. At what time should the pansy seed be planted? How should the soil be prepared?

Supplementary reading—"April Fools" (p. 50), "Pansy Song" (p. 125), Nature in Verse, compiled by Mary J. Lovejoy; "Garden Folk" (p. 179), "Pansies" pp. 183-184, Among Flowers and Trees with the Poets, Wait and Leonard; "A Yellow Pansy" (p. 124), Nature Pictures by American Poets compiled by Annie Russell Marble.

I dropped a seed into the earth. It grew, and the plant was mine.

It was a wonderful thing, this plant of mine. I did not know its name, and the plant did not bloom. All I know is that I planted something apparently as lifeless as a grain of sand and there came forth a green and living thing unlike the seed, unlike the soil in which it stood, unlike the air into which it grew. No one could tell me why it grew, nor how. It had secrets all its own, secrets that baffle the wisest men; yet this plant was my friend. It faded when I withheld the light, it wilted when I neglected to give it water, it flourished when I supplied its simple needs. One week I went away on a vacation, and when I returned the plant was dead; and I missed it.

Although my little plant had died so soon, it had taught me a lesson; and the lesson is that it is worth while to have a plant.

The Nature-Study Idea, L. H. Bailey.

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