Time for spring – and pansies

Pretty pansies are the first flowers to be planted in spring because they withstand cold snaps.

Chris Ochsner/The Kansas City Star/AP/File

It's time to plant pansies. I do this every year in March, no matter what the weather. Some years, I plant pansies in the plastic pot by my front door while wearing a winter coat and gloves. Other years find me digging in potting soil on warm, springlike days, feeling the weak sunshine fight against the remnants of winter.

I plan my week around pansies, including them on my to-do list between grocery store runs and phone calls. "To do:" I write, "Call dentist and vet, wash sheets, buy groceries, buy and plant pansies." I tell my family about my plans. I'm not sure they understand how important this annual ritual is to me. I've started calling it my pansy pilgrimage.

Pansies are my bridge from winter to spring. They're the first flowers I can plant that I know will withstand freezing nights, cold snaps, and a surprise frost.

These days, you can buy pansies hardy enough to make it from fall to spring, flowers that hunker down in the soil and hold on until warm weather arrives. But I need the ritual of planting them in late winter. The act of placing them in cold earth is my way of affirming that spring will come. It's a way of hurrying spring along, like raising a flag that says, "Here, spring! Come over here!"

With their facelike blossoms, pansies have personality. The upper petals form a wide face, with dark-brown splotches serving as eyes. The petal below looks like a long chin or a beard. The faces look serious. Some say the word "pansy" comes from the French word "pensée," "thought," because pansies bend down as if they are meditating.

The flowers make me think of Georgia O'Keeffe and her large paintings of blossoms, including several of pansies. I've heard a few theories of what her giant images of flowers might mean, but O'Keeffe's explanation was simple: She painted her flowers so large to be sure that no one would miss them.

I recently discovered a quote from her that made me think about my pansy ritual in a new way.

Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven't time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.

Taking time. This could be a new reason for planting pansies. Instead of fitting them into a busy list of to-do's, instead of planting them to rush spring's arrival, I can plant them as a way to pay attention to the small things around me.

Pansies, with their serious faces, are a good way to take time. Moving cool soil into a pot and placing these hardy plants into holes has a meditative quality. I feel the seeming fragility of the roots; I take care not to break the thin stems that support the flowers. I touch the silky petals and watch the plants soak up the thin winter light, unafraid of the cold weather still to come.

I stand up and look around at the rest of the late-winter world. Skeletons of trees brush the gray skies, and the earth is colored in subtle shades of brown. In another month, these little plants will have grown into a busy riot of color, surrounded by green grass, daffodil blooms, and leaves unfurling on the trees. And as I dash past my pansies on my way in and out of my front door, ticking items off my to-do list, I want to stop and notice them.

I've always planted pansies to hurry spring, but this year, I'm planting them to slow myself down.

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