Violet’s Edible and Medicinal Uses

Text and Photographs by Juliet Blankespoor How to prepare violet as a food and medicine by Blog Castanea 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.

Common blue violet (Violoa sororia)

Common blue violet (Violoa sororia)

 
Confederate violet (Viola sororia)

Confederate violet (Viola sororia)

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. Picking common blue violet 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 blooms  
Violet and chickweed salad, garnished with dandelion flowers

Violet and chickweed salad, garnished with dandelion flowers

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.
Chickweed and violet hummus

Chickweed and violet hummus

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.
Fresh violet and chickweed on a bagel with garlic sauce

Fresh violet and chickweed greens on a bagel with garlic sauce

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.
Violet's secret subterranean flowers

Violet’s secret subterranean flowers

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! Bouquet of violet blossoms  

If you’re interested in learning more about foraging and wild edibles and medicinals, please check out our Online Medicine Making Course and Herbal Immersion Program 

24 thoughts on “Violet’s Edible and Medicinal Uses

  1. thank you for all the great info. one thing i’ve not been able to figure out is when i bring in my flowers, how do i get rid of the bugs on them? i’ve brought in flowers and greens to make things with but even after setting for awhile the bugs are still there. little gnats, ants and other small ones. i don’t want to spray my garden with pesticides. any suggestions? and thank you for the wonderful articles. 🙂

    • You’re so welcome, Sandra! I’m glad you are enjoying the blog. Usually, after sitting for 1-2 hours post-harvest, the bugs will leave the plant material. However, if there are still bugs after this time, you can shake the flowers upside down or use a brush to manually remove them. Best of luck to you!

  2. In the early 1900’s (up until the 50’s,) violet flowers were given by women to other women to communicate their “sapphic”/lesbian desire. The act was much attributed to Sappho’s description being “violet-haired” (wearing violets in her hair) and her reputation as a lesbian because of her emphasis on Eros and Aphrodite. The violet is sacred to Aphrodite. Violet crowns were commonly worn for protection by the goddess.

    • So interesting! Thanks for sharing that bit of herstory 🙂 I wonder if the appearance of the flower had much to do with it’s secret meaning?!? It does resemble a certain aspect of human anatomy!

  3. such a wonderful post with beautiful images, thank you so much.
    i saw my first yellow wild violet in the forest yesterday, such a joy to greet it.
    here in NW Montana spring comes on slowly. We have Canada, violet and yellow violets.

  4. Have you tried Johnny Jump Ups flowers or leaves (viola rafinesquii) as an edible? They are much smaller blooms than violets with different kinds of leaves. Wondering if they are worth the time to make a syrup or honey with. Thanks

    • Hi Abby,

      I simply eat the flowers of Johhny Jump ups, and don’t use them medicinally. However, they’re traditionally used in Europe similarly to the common blue violet–as a blood cleanser, heart tonic, and respiratory remedy for dry, hacking coughs. The flowers and leaves are used as a tea or syrup. I’m referring to Viola tricolor, which is the plant most people call Johnny Jump ups, or Hearts Ease, but the species you mentioned is a different violet….Just wanted to make sure we are on the same page!

      • THANK YOU for sharing more on Johnny Jump Ups! I have invited these adorable and happy little “weeds” in my gardens and eaten them since I was a child. I have long loved their gently sweet spiced little blossoms in salads and while puttering in the garden. I did not however know of their medicinal value! I will certainly be making more of an effort with this this spring!

        • Pansies are hybrids originating with crosses between Viola tricolor and other Viola species. They have edible flowers if they haven’t been sprayed (most commercial bedding plants are grown with chemicals). Try looking for pansy plants from your local organic herb nursery or grow your own. Because they are of unknown parentage and are novel hybrids, they aren’t used medicinally. However, the high levels of flavonoids and related antioxidant compounds in the petals make them a functional food-medicine.

  5. Thank you for sharing your knowledge! Your photos are beautiful. =)

    Can viola tri-color (common little johnny jump-ups) be used in the same ways as the viola sororia mentioned above?

    Thanks!

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