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  • Writer's pictureLisa Davis

Pansy Tales

A variety of pansies

The pansy is sometimes called the stepmother flower, and it gets that name from a dark German fairytale. I found the story in a Pennsylvania school journal from 1893, the purpose of the tale being to teach children the parts of a flower.

The fairytale has it all: a widowed king, daughters, a stepmother, stepdaughters, and treachery. The tale is told with a pansy in hand. The two plainly colored petals at the top of the flower represent the king’s daughters, the opposite, more colorful side petals represent the stepmother’s daughters, and biggest, most colorful petal at the bottom represents the stepmother. The king’s head can be seen at the center of them all. For the record, I’d like to say I believe it is quite unfair that stepmothers in fairytales are always portrayed as evil.

The Story

A happily married king and queen had two lovely daughters who were charming and accomplished. Alas, the queen took ill and died, and the king eventually remarried a woman who had two daughters of her own. The new queen grew jealous of the compliments given to her stepdaughters, and did everything she could to make them unhappy. She allowed them to wear only the plainest clothes, while she dressed her own daughters in colorful, expensive gowns and fine jewels. Her own attire was even more extravagant than her daughters.

The King with his second wife, one of his stepdaughters, and two vacant "chairs"

Five large chairs surrounded the king’s throne. The hateful queen made the two stepdaughters sit in one chair together – at this point in the story, remove the two upper petals to reveal a single green “chair.” The chair is a sepal: a modified leaf whose purpose is to protect the bud. The stepmother gave each of her daughters their own chair – remove the petals on each side to reveal two more green chairs. The stepmother took two chairs for herself because her skirts were so lavish she needed extra room. Remove the bottom petal to reveal two more chairs.

The stepmother grew so mean the king finally banished her and her daughters from the kingdom. The queen raged and vowed revenge. She had magical powers and cast a spell that caused the king to remain sitting on his throne with his feet plunged in boiling water forever.

The King with his parboiled legs

With the petals removed, it looks like the king is seated on his throne surrounded by the 5 green chairs. He wears a robe with a golden collar and his lower extremities are encased in a light-blue container—a tub of scalding water. If you gently remove the “tub,” and carefully separate what remains, two little parboiled legs are visible. In reality, the king's head and body are the pistil, made up of the stigma and ovary, or female parts of the flower. His legs and robe are stamens, or the male parts of a flower.

It was a strange and interesting way to teach plant anatomy.


At one of the Art Festivals where I was selling my botanical and fairy images, I chatted with a woman about pansies and legends. She told me when she was a little girl, her neighbor grew pansies, and told her this story with one of the flowers in hand. At the ending, she was so upset she ran home sobbing, still thinks it is a horrible story, and because of it, tragically cannot bring herself to grow pansies.


The King soaking his tired feet in a tub of warm water

I have come across many variations of that story since then. The newer ones are much more pleasant. In my favorite, each of the pansy petals represents a widowed king’s five daughters. They all dearly love their father, and crowd around his throne to be close to him. The oldest two at the top of the pansy are studious and not interested in fancy clothes. The middle two on each side like fancier clothes, but the much beloved, and somewhat spoiled youngest daughter wore the fanciest clothes of them all. Each eventually marries, starting with the oldest, and leaves home. A petal is removed as each departs. The king goes all out for is youngest’s wedding. He’s proud and delighted that he has successfully raised his daughters and they are all happily married, and in celebration, he dances all night. The next day he can be seen, still dressed in his fine robe, finally sitting and relaxing, with his feet soaking in a tub of warm water.

I definitely prefer this version of the tale!


Other tidbits of trivia about the pansy:

1. The flowers of this plant are edible.

2. In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s original name was Pansy O’Hara. The publisher asked Margaret Mitchell to change her name.

3. In legend, the flower was originally white, but turned purple where it was pierced by cupid’s arrow.

4. According to an old superstition, pansies should not be picked with dew on them, for that would cause the death of a loved one.

5. In another German tale, pansies originally had a heavenly aroma, and people would travel from miles around to smell them. They trampled down the grasses surrounding the pansy, which ruined the feed for cattle. The pansy felt bad for the hungry cows, and prayed to God to help them. So God took away the pansies' lovely smell, but in return gave them lovely, tricolor "faces."


Pansy Sisters


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