It’s spring, and Washington’s most ubiquitous creatures are out in force. You’ll find them lurking by hedgerows and fringing the buildings. Pert and mysterious, they peek out from bushes and grace half the parks. Lobbyists, right? No, it’s a much more fragrant infestation. With the city in bloom again, every earthen patch and plot is rife with pansies. Can an annual pansy festival be far behind?
As if in some low-grade horror flick, every building on Massachusetts Avenue, it seems, regardless of purpose or architectural style, is bordered by the same wide-faced invaders. And not only that avenue, but 14th and 15th streets, and the whole corporate downtown—even the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Red Cross buildings down by the Ellipse—have succumbed.
Pansies are fine and all, but why should the plantings at the Brookings Institute resemble those at the Embassy of Australia, or those at the DAR resemble those at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers? Why don’t one hundred flowers bloom? A vast horticultural conspiracy has dug itself into the fabric, the marrow, the very dirt of our city. Even my poor dry cleaner’s yard, a bald patch of mud, isn’t immune. Twelvepacks of pansies have been plunked down there, still in their plastic grower’s cups. Not since kudzu has a force of nature so overwhelmed the District.
Expert cultivators call the pansy conquest a matter of pragmatics. “It’s a plant that fills a gardening niche between winter and spring,” says Robert Pritchard of the U.S. Botanical Gardens. As for their popularity, perhaps it is best just to say, with Pritchard, that “they work very well into containers” and leave it at that.
Check the roots of pansies and you won’t see a trend that grew from the ground up. Today’s pansies get plugged into their decorative urns and chalices right from the test tube. “This has developed over the last 8 to 10 years,” says Debbie West, the Botanical Garden’s supervisor. That’s when the hybridizing began. Pansies have “really caught on in the last 4 or 5 years,” she adds, partly as a result of the increasing variety of colors available.
Sue Guglin, seed product development director at Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C., agrees: “There’s been great work going on in the pansy group.” Fueled by landscapers and consumers who’ve been whipped into an aesthetic frenzy by Martha Stewart, whom West credits with increasing national yard awareness, a pansy profusion began. “Now,” says West, “if a lady doesn’t want pansies that are going to clash with her brick house, her local garden center can go out and find ones that match.”
Let them try. My dry cleaner is on to something in leaving hers untransplanted—she would only have to uproot them come summer. The truth is that pansies come into our lives full-grown and are discarded at whim, the horticultural equivalent of goldfish. No one grows them from seeds. Even Pritchard, a professional, gets “plugs” or young plants from a “plant brokerage,” then “pots them up” to size. When I catch Neva Eylar of Natural Interiors Inc. planting full-grown yellow and purple ones in front of the Washington Post one drizzly afternoon, she tries to hedge. “We really mainly do interiors,” she says, wiping her muddy hands on her jeans. “I don’t have a card.”
Unlike real beacons of spring, pansies don’t grow wild in America. They can’t. While daffodils have been “naturalized” and sprout up throughout Rock Creek Park in wild, patchy bunches, pansies haven’t been around long enough to get loose. And when they do, the summers kill them. And even if they don’t wilt to death, they cannot, as hybrids, reproduce themselves. Think of them as the mules of the plant world. After the first generation, they begin reverting to their unhybridized pansy parent; within a few short years, they’ll have turned back into violas. In their genes, they yearn for the Swiss mountainside that was their ancestral home. Breeders crow about pansy degradation as “the built-in patent.” Unable to survive in the wild, unable to reproduce, and not native to these shores, each blotch of pansy color bespeaks the hand of man.
“There’s a lot of hand labor involved” in making hybrids, says Bob Croft, Northeast area manager for Sakata Seeds of America. One of the top five seed companies active in the U.S., Sakata Seeds is based in Yokohama, Japan, and has production sites in China, Japan, Holland, Chile, and Morgan Hill, Calif. Pansy R&D has been driven by Japanese firms, which now dominate the American annuals seed market.
“Most of the items are pollinated by Q-Tips,” says Croft. “That’s why you find most seed production in Third-World countries where the labor is very inexpensive.” Scratch a pansy, get the global economy.
The international traffic in pansies is being fueled, ironically, by the green movement. Corporations are now more concerned with beautifying their environments than in the past, according to Croft. Plus pansies, he adds, make customers more likely to snap up empty real estate by increasing apartment “curb appeal,” and also tend to decrease crime rates. Charles Ramsey, the District’s new police chief, may want to take note.