Needham History Center & Museum

Why Pansies?

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum

For a flower, I like the name pansy, or pensée, best of any.

(Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 27 January 1841)

How did Pansies get to be the symbol of Needham?

Pansies blooming at the Needham History Center. (Photo courtesy of Andy Caulfield. Used with permission).

Although farming in Needham is mostly in the past, Needham once had a busy agricultural economy. Dairies were the most common type of farm in Needham, and many operated well into the 20th century. Smaller farms grew garden crops such as carrots and beets. Another important product was flowers, which were sold to the city flower markets. Pansies were one of the flowers grown in Needham, and were shipped daily to Boston and beyond, and weekly to the White House in Washington.

Pansies as we know them were created in Needham, cultivated hybrids of the little wild Viola called ‘Johnny-jump-up.’ Needham’s “Pansy King” was Denys Zirngiebel, a commercial grower whose home and greenhouses were on South Street. Zirngiebel came to the United States from Switzerland in 1855. He lived in Bern with his young family, working as a botanist and cultivating grapes on his own land, until 1855, when his land was taken for the Swiss Federal Railways. With limited further prospects in his own country, he moved to America to create a new future. He settled in Cambridge, taking a job as a garden man with the Harvard Botanical Gardens.

Denys Zirngiebel at his South Street greenhouses, circa 1900
Denys Zirngiebel at his South Street greenhouses, circa 1900

In 1864, Zirngiebel decided to go into the nursery business for himself, and bought the historic Joshua Lewis House (1776) in Needham, along the river on South Street, to built his greenhouses. His specialty was pansies. He grew his pansies commercially for decades, and was famous for the numerous varieties that he developed. His premier product was the Giant Swiss Pansy, which often displayed blooms more than 4 inches across. In May 1888, he took First and Second Prize, and a Silver Medal for his pansies at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society exhibition. He sold his plants and seeds to commercial growers all over the country.

Zirngiebel is famous not only for his pansies, but because he was the grandfather of another important Needhamite, the great artist and illustrator N. C. Wyeth. The Zirngiebels’ neighbor in Cambridge was Andrew Newell Wyeth, who owned a hay and feed business. Both families were young, and their children grew up as friends. The Zirngiebel and Wyeth families continued as friends even after the move to Needham, and in 1881, Wyeth’s son Newell married Zirngiebel’s daughter Hattie. Zirngiebel built a house for the couple next door to his own home, and the South Street land became an extended family compound.

N.C. Wyeth was the first of Newell and Hattie’s children, and the oldest of their four sons – Newell (NC), Edwin, Nathaniel, and Stimson. N.C. Wyeth referred frequently to both homes in his work, notably his famous illustrations of Paul Revere’s Ride (the Zirngiebel house), and the Admiral Benbow Inn in Treasure Island (his parents’ house). The Zirngiebel home, and Denys Zirngiebel himself, were also the subject of several of Wyeth’s painting, including Winter/Christmas Morning, which is in the collections of the Needham History Center & Museum.

The charming Pansy was therefore a natural choice as an emblem of Needham’s history. The Town of Needham has declared April to be Pansy Month, and the Pansy to be the official flower of Needham.