Growing wild on the sidewalks of Adlershof, these sour-faced pansies were photographed by long-time Urban Plants reader Marko, who posted them on Flickr with the caption “My, are we angry!” It seems to be rogue pansy season in Berlin, as we spotted more frowning flowers here in Friedrichshain…
Compared to their brethren in the science and technology district of Adlershof, the pansies in the punk-hipster-student-haven of Friedrichshain seem to be less upset about their lot in life, even though they have to grow under the noses of parked cars and share space with less attractive weeds.
The Adlershof pansies helped me to finally understand the German name for pansy, Stiefmütterchen, which means “little stepmother.” Anyone who’s read any of the Grimms’ fairy tales will know that stepmothers had an image problem in old Germany, and the frowning little flowers above certainly do resemble angry little women! However, according to this German Wikipedia page on the wild pansy, the name comes not from the flower’s “face,” but from a folk story told using the flower, in which each petal represents a member of the stepmother’s family.
I had always vaguely wondered how the pansy is related to the fragrant, edible and elusive violet, Viola odorata, documented in this Wikimedia photo:
It turns out that pansies are cultivated hybrids of a different member of the Viola genus, the European wildflower Viola tricolor. Also called Heartsease or, in German, Wildes Stiefmütterchen, this wild pansy is tiny compared to the cultivated pansy, but shows the same classic purple, white and yellow coloring, as shown in this Wikimedia photo from Norway:
Unlike the fragrant and appropriately named Viola odorata, neither the wild Viola tricolor nor its larger, more colorful cultivars, garden pansies, have much scent to speak of. Again, Wikipedia offers an interesting folk explanation, summarizing from “Legends and Lore of Texas Wildflowers” (Elizabeth Silverthorne, Texas A&M University Press):
A German fable tells of how the pansy lost it perfume. Originally pansies would have been very fragrant, growing wild in fields and forests. It was said that people would trample the grass completely in eagerness to pick pansies. Unfortunately, the people’s cows were starving due to the ruined fields, so the pansy prayed to give up her perfume. Her prayer was answered, and without her perfumed scent, the fields grew tall, and the cows grew fat on the fresh green grass.
This story makes the pansy sound so sweet and giving, which doesn’t fit with the cultivated pansy’s sourpuss face at all. Perhaps she secretly resented her sacrifice!
Have you noticed any rogue pansies or other unusual flowers growing wild on streets near you? Send in your pictures to urbanplantresearch[at]gmail.com!