A plant of identity and protest. Historically, ‘pansy’ has been used as a derogatory term for gay men - one of several horticulturally derived slurs. Over time, the name has been reclaimed as a celebration of diversity and sexuality: throughout the 20th century numerous freethinking movements have used the term, including the drag ball scene of 1920s - 1930s New York, in which performers were referred to as ‘pansy performers’ because of their colourful clothing.
The familiar, showy modern pansy was first bred in the mid-19th century, principally from the wild pansy, or 'heartsease', a jaunty interloper in European grain fields. In Roman folklore, one of Cupid's mistimed arrows hit one of these wild pansies, bestowing on them the mythical ability to induce love. In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the King of the Fairies squeezes juice from the flower onto Titania's eyes while she slept, so that she would fall in love with the ass-headed Bottom.
The pansy make up
Everyone knows a pansy. Cheerfully dishevelled members of the violet family, they are queens of the window box and the cool herbaceous border. Seldom above ankle-height, pansies are known for their floppy five-petalled flowers, each the size of a child's hand and with a signature dark central blotch. Their velvet nap intensifies the petals' colours and repels raindrops, causing them to sputter and sparkle.
Reclaiming the pansy
Possibly because of its resonance with the word 'nancy', which had been used since the 17th century to describe 'effeminate' men, in the 1920s 'pansy' began to be used as an insult towards men who were flamboyantly gay.
Occasionally the term was used in a more positive light within the gay community itself and in the last decade, the flowers themselves have come to symbolise plucky, showy diversity of gender and sexuality more generally. It seems so fitting that pansy flowers, which are edible, add splashes of welcome colour to a salad that might otherwise be uniformly green and humdrum.
Some pansies have been bred to be white and purple, colours which alongside the green of the stems were adopted in the early 20th century by women campaigning for the right to vote. Recently, pansy badges and brooches in those colours have been worn to celebrate the suffragette movement.
Want to delve deeper into the world of trees and plants?
Check out author Jon Drori's beautifully illustrated works, Around the World in 80 Trees and Around the World in 80 Plants - intertwining botany with history, culture and folklore. Both are available from all booksellers or via Jon’s website. Jon has very kindly offered a 25% discount with the voucher code 80JONDRORI.
Listen to original music by Meesha Fones, alongside spoken text by Jon Drori created in response to the Pansy, Iconic Plant and commissioned especially for PoliNations. Narration by Jade Samuels. To listen to the music by itself. click the link further up the page.
All Iconic Plants
A journeying plant. Although a common sight in British orchards and gardens today, the apple actually originated in Kazakhstan! Like so many goods before it, the plant journeyed to the UK via the Silk Road. The apple’s prevalence is even more surprising when you consider its inability to self-pollinate; since the seed of an apple won’t replicate its parent, the only way to replicate an apple is to graft a new one.
A plant of pragmatism. Long seen as a symbol of sorrow due to its drooping branches, the willow also tells a story of resilience, healing and strength. One of the few trees that can be bent without breaking, willow trees are known for their association with crafts and weaving, but they also have a long history of healing. The medicinal properties of willow bark, which contain a chemical used in aspirin, have been used for centuries.
A plant of resistance and tenacity. The ultimate survivor, Amaranth was first used by Aztecs in rituals involving food created from the plant. Subsequently outlawed by the Spanish conquerors the plant became a symbol of resistance against the invaders. It survived their repression and continues to be grown across the world today.
A plant of wellbeing. Throughout history, lavender has been used to soothe, calm and alleviate stress. Highly fashionable in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, the scent can evoke strong memories among the older generations in particular. The plant itself, and the oil derived from it, has multiple uses across perfume, cooking and herbal medicine. Its healing qualities are known to have been used as far back as Ancient Egypt!
An ancient plant. Ferns are one of the most ancient plants found across the globe and believe it or not played a vital part in the globalisation of the world as we know it! As a central ingredient in coal, which fuelled the industrial revolution, the humble fern had a key role to play in getting us to where we are today.
A plant of empire. While a quintessentially English drink nowadays, and well known for being grown in India, tea has its roots in the history of empire. Originally found and imported solely from China, the East India Company moved to prevent a Chinese monopoly on the product by smuggling the plant, and the secrets of its cultivation, out of China and into India. Soon, tea became established as a profitable export for landowners.
A plant of the economy. Originating in central Asia and Turkey, it was the introduction of the Tulip to Holland in the 17th century which subsequently caused the world’s first asset bubble. During this period of so-called ‘Tulip mania’, the plants became a luxury item: the price of bulbs soared until they peaked and subsequently came crashing down, leading to serious financial repercussions.
A plant of poetry. Throughout history the rose has featured in literature and mythology from across the world, and has come to represent many things: love, war, purity and friendship among others. In a happy reflection of cultures coming together, it’s only in hybridising with the Chinese rose, that the English Rose came to flower for as long as it does now.