by Veronica Iriart
“Hoy me vas a ayudar a plantar en el jardín.”
“Okay. What are we going to plant?”
As was customary in my household of Argentine-American immigrants, my mom gave me orders in Spanish, and I responded in English. “Pansies.” My mom replied, grabbing the garden shovels and leading the way outside to a patch of soil just a few feet away from our front door.
The house of my childhood was beautiful. It had an old charm that came from being built in the 1960s and all the space a family of five could need and some.
Yet, the image that always comes to mind when I recollect those years on Timberline Drive is the yard. I decided that my love for biology was born in our yard, with both the front and the back offering distinct habitats occupied by unique insects, trees, and animals to observe and track. While I could watch a butterfly flutter from flower to flower for hours, I had never before taken interest in growing flowers until my mother handed me that packet of pansy seeds.
Together, we planted about 20 seeds, and suddenly the pansy patch became my new obsession. I would check on it every day, watching new seedlings emerge and grow, and finally flower into dazzling displays of purples, blues, whites, and yellows. Every flower I doodled from henceforth was a pansy, because I was enamored with the way the center of the flower was a prominently different color than the outer tips, and I always tried to capture that brilliant contrast in my sketchbooks.
Now, I’m twenty years older and a first-year graduate student in a plant-pollinator lab; however, I still prefer the pansy flower (Viola tricolor) over all others. For instance, if you look at the contrasted center of the pansy flower that I love so much, you can appreciate two things. First, the bold colors serve as an obvious cue for pollinators, attracting many different kinds of bees, butterflies, and moths by standing out amongst the crowd of green grasses. Second, if you look closely into the floral center, you will see that the pansy is actually showing you an angry (dare I say determined?) face.
Perhaps I’m falling victim to pareidolia (the tendency to see faces and other meaningful images in random objects), but I think pansies show a face that shouldn’t be trifled with. What image do you see? If you saw the face as well, you and I would not be the first.
In Spanish, the word for pansies is “pensamientos” meaning “thoughts.” The pansy probably got its name from people thinking the flower resembles a human face, intelligent and pensive.
In my own work, I still feel the same excitement watching replicates in my greenhouse experiment germinate, grow, and flower as I felt caring for the pansies I planted with my mom. Likewise, every time I pass this common garden plant, I see the face of determination that reminds me to be brave and thoughtful in everything I do.
Veronica Iriart is 23 years old, and a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh studying the effects of sublethal pesticide exposure to plants and pollinators. Follow Veronica on twitter at @veroiriart.