Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound.
And maidens call it “love-in-idleness.”
Fetch me that flower. The herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
-Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II Scene 1
O Tranio! till I found it to be true,
I never thought it possible or likely;
But see, while idly I stood looking on,
I found the effect of love in idleness;
And now in plainness do confess to thee,
That art to me as secret and as dear
As Anna to the Queen of Carthage was,
Tranio, I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio,
If I achieve not this young modest girl.-Luciento, The Taming of the Shrew, Act I Scene 1
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
love, remember. And there is pansies; that’s for-Ophelia, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5
is really saturnine, something cold, viscous, and slimy. A strong decoction of the herbs and flowers (if you will, you may make it into syrup) is an excellent cure for the French pox, the herb being a gallant antivenereal: and that antivenereals are the best cure for that disease
And because of its association with Cupid and his arrows, it became a flower of lustful lovers as well. Trust me, folk names like “kiss her in the buttery” and “come and cuddle me” don’t happen to flowers who are exchanged between lovers who like to simply hold hands.
However by the Victorian period something strange happened to the public’s perception of the wild pansy. It became a flower of chaste and untainted love, unaffected by silly things like lust and desire. This transition happened in part by the growing advances in botanical science. It was discovered that certain species of plants (Viola being one of the largest groups) actually produced seeds through cleistogamy (or automatic self pollination). Plants that produce cleistogamous flowers do not need to use resources to produce colorful petals or nectar or any of the other seductive tricks they use to lure pollinators. Instead, the cleistogamous flower never even opens. Once it is fully formed, the pollen is transfered to the stigma within the closed flower and seeds develop.
Imagine the wonder the somewhat repressed and overly proper Victorians must have felt when they learned this fact. Here was a flower that didn’t need to engage in any of that birds and the bees nonsense! Reproduction without any outward appearance of sexual behavior! Finally, a flower that was a chaste and pure as the best of them.
How strange that the entire symbolism behind a flower can change that drastically over a few hundred years.