Have you noticed what's happened to pansies, those demure and diminutive fall-planted favorites? Or violas, for that matter, their compact cousins?
They're not just blue or yellow anymore, even though these two colors are still their strong suit. Like a flight of butterflies, they now come in every conceivable color, even a non-color, black.
Gardeners should be delighted because pansies are one of the longest-lasting bedding plants, and now there are shades and hues to go with anything else you have in the garden or feel like planting this fall.
The only problem may be choosing from so many, compounding the gardener's lament of "so many flowers, so little ground" (although they also excel in containers).
One wholesale grower will have 84 kinds of pansies this year and 16 violas.
"I've given up trying to keep track of them," said Frank Burkard Jr., who runs Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena, "suddenly there's so much out there."
He's planted some surprising schemes not possible a few years ago.
Orange and black, for instance, for a Halloween garden party, using three orange Padparaja pansies for every one black (which are actually a deep, deep maroon but look as black as soot).
He's also mixed the new pinks with pale blues and whites to get a soft Easter basket look for springtime. Pastel pink was unheard of in pansies but the new Imperial Pink changed that, and there is now a whole series of pastels called Imperial Antique Shades that one catalogue calls "difficult to describe" but "fashionable." Call them dusky, decidedly non-primary colors, and a hit with gardeners who prefer pastels.
There are several soft apricot hues and peachy colors, even a wild orange and purple pansy named Jolly Joker that is no shrinking violet.
Some pansies are approaching real red, but Burkard cautions "scarlet, maybe rose, would better describe them." Frosty Rose is a particularly pretty new pansy, but Universal Plus Red comes pretty darn close to being a true bright red. And, there are some deep wine reds that must have been aged in good oak for a long time. Some are nearly brown.
And don't overlook the new crisp whites and sugary creams.
"Isn't it amazing what's happened in the last two or three years?" asked designer Sandy Kennedy of Kennedy Landscape Design Associates in Woodland Hills. Although she says she is "just getting to know them," Kennedy already has some favorites for fall planting.
The Masterpiece series is one, full of lavenders, purples, soft yellows and peaches, sultry maroons, even bronze. And the flowers on these and another debuting strain named Rococo are ruffled, a new twist.
Another new twist is found in the Bingo and Rally series of pansies. The flowers are less droopy with a stronger joint between flower and stem so they stand up straight. Both series are new this year.
She also likes the pale, faceless pansies, like a viola with little or no markings but as big as a pansy. They and the new violas with cat-whisker faces have completely blurred the distinction between pansy and viola. Nowadays violas simply have the smallest flowers, usually an inch or smaller in size, and they can be plain or heavily marked. Just about everything larger, plain or marked, is called a pansy, though some call the smaller kinds "viola-flowered pansies" or "multifloras." To further confuse matters, one grower calls a new series of violas "mini-pansies."
According to Kennedy, the faceless pansies and the new violas seem to take spring heat better in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys (the new Maxims and Happy Face especially), and Burkard thinks they are less likely to rot.
Some people, particularly those that garden in heavy clay soil on the east side of town, have serious problems with pansies suddenly wilting and dying, especially during wet winters. It's caused by a pathogen that thrives in soggy soil and attacks the crowns of the plants.
It can be a maddening experience. Donald Duke, and his father before him, grew hundreds of pansies each year in their San Marino garden. A few years ago they started dying out and they tried all sorts of things from mounding the soil to growing their own from seed, but have finally given up trying at all.
If you've had this problem in the recent past, you probably will again, said Burkard, because the disease is in the soil. Try planting in a different location and leave that part of the garden pansy-free for a couple of years, like a farmer rotating his crops.
You should also make sure that the pansies are planted so the crown (the top of the root-ball) ends up about a half-inch out of the soil, and go easy on the watering. Try switching to the smaller violas.
Or plant in containers using fresh bagged potting soil. Pansies are a natural in containers, perfectly proportioned to pots and they will spill gracefully over the sides. In a pot, pansies are virtually problem free.