Text and Photographs by Juliet Blankespoor
Violets are welcome “weeds” in my garden. In fact, the common blue violet—my particular brand of violet garden guest—is native to these parts, which is more than I can say for myself.
The common blue violet (Viola sororia, Violaceae) is native to most of central and eastern North America. It is a common sight in lawns, gardens, sidewalk cracks and along trailsides. The common blue violet is typically considered a “weed” because of its relative ease in adapting to human disturbance, but it pushes the definition of weed because it has been on this continent for a very long time. The leaves and flowers of the common blue violet, along with many other species, are edible and medicinal. The “confederate violet” is an escaped cultivar (cultivated variety) of Viola sororia—it has white flowers with blue streaks and is a common inhabitant of lawns in the southeastern United States.
The sweet violet (Viola odorata, Violaceae) is the principal medicinal and culinary species used in Europe. It has escaped cultivation in many locales, because it is popularly planted for its fragrance. Much of the American use of violets stems from the European herbal tradition. Interestingly, most violet species in North America lack the signature aroma of sweet violet.
The Viola genus contains around 550 species, mostly found in the temperate climates of the world. Many species of violet are used similarly to the common blue violet. Most wild foods authors report that the blue and white flowered species of violet are all edible, but not the yellow flowered species. Other authors write that all species are serviceable. I notice that the leaves of some of the wild violets have an unpleasant soapy flavor, which leaves a funny feeling at the back of my throat; this is most likely from high levels of saponins. I avoid these plants, and instead go for the milder tasting species. Some woodland species of violet are rare and should not be disturbed. A good course of action is to identify the common species of violet in your area and then research their edibility and/or traditional uses for medicine. But there’s a good chance that you have common blue violets or the sweet violet growing in your area—both of which are good wild edibles and choice medicinals.
Violet’s heart-shaped leaves and characteristic irregular flowers are a familiar sight for most of us. The leaves typically bear rounded teeth and are smooth. The flowers have a little rounded tail if you turn them over. Children seem to have a special affinity for this charismatic group of plants; perhaps because its bright flowers are well within their reach. Violets actually have many look-alikes, many of which are inedible or poisonous, so only harvest them when the flowers are present and you are 100% sure that you have a violet.
I enjoy violet leaves and flowers in salad, pesto and in sandwiches and wraps. The roots of most violet species can cause nausea and vomiting, and should not be eaten. The leaves and flowers can be harvested with scissors in a “haircut” style. Violet can be harvested multiple times throughout the spring until the leaves become too fibrous. It will often make a comeback in the fall, with a flush of tender new growth. Violet leaves can be sautéed or steamed. I also like to stir them into soups as a nutrient-dense thickener. The flowers make a lovely garnish—we sprinkle them on salads and add them to cakes and pancakes. Violet flowers are also beautiful when candied or frozen into ice cubes.
Violet leaves contain a good bit of mucilage, or soluble fiber, and thus are helpful in lowering cholesterol levels (similar to oatmeal). Soluble fiber is also helpful in restoring healthy populations of intestinal flora, as beneficial bacteria feed off of this type of fiber. The leaves are high in Vitamins A and C, and rutin, which is a glycoside of the flavonoid quercetin. Rutin has been shown in animal and in vitro studies to be anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and blood thinning. Many foods that are high in rutin, such as buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), are eaten traditionally as a remedy for hemorrhoids and varicose veins.
Violet is cooling and moistening, and is used internally as a blood cleanser and lymphatic stimulant. It is taken as a tea or syrup, and can also be eaten for its medicine. The exact dosage is not especially important since it can safely be consumed in large quantities. As a gentle food herb, violet is generally safe for elders, youngsters, and people who are taking pharmaceuticals.
Violet has a rich tradition in Europe, where it has been used for centuries as a pulmonary remedy for dry hacking cough. It is often recommended for bronchitis and whooping cough, along with the roots of marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Violet can also be used as a tonic for chronically swollen lymph nodes. As with many other herbs with an action on the lymphatic system, it has a long tradition of use in the treatment of cancer.
Topically, violet is used as a poultice, compress, infused oil and salve in the treatment of dry or chaffed skin, abrasions, insect bites, eczema, varicose veins and hemorrhoids. It is cooling, soothing and anti-inflammatory.
If that isn’t enough to enamor you of their presence, violets have secret underground flowers, which never open to the light of day, yet still set seed. Read about these subterranean “Plan B” flowers here.
Think twice before weeding out this medicinal and edible wildflower; it may be one of the most valuable plants in your garden, even if you didn’t put it there!