This spring violets are in! (In season, that is). You’ll see them sprouting up in yards, marshy places, stream-sides, and on the edges of moist forests. They are a must-have for your home medicine chest and oh, so seasonal.
Violet leaves and flowers are a spring delicacy. They are abundant in the most mundane areas (grass lawns), and are the perfect introduction to urban foraging. Here are some tips on hunting the varied species of the Viola genus, and why you might want to, of course.
That said, the only way to spy a violet is to look down. Way down, just below the tips of grass in a lawn. Scan your yard (or any other moist, green collection of plants) and look for a slight purple hue. Then zoom in, ending up on your hands and knees, face to face with the cutest of flowers. Despite their reputation, violets are not shy, per se. They just prefer to grow amidst blades of grass or behind other plants. This isn’t due to insecurity, they’re just doing their own thing.
The beauty of the violet is that we have to stop, really see and come down close to the earth to spend time with them. They demonstrate that “living small” can be a powerful position. They are highly economical and efficient little flowers. There are over 80 species of wild and cultivated violets growing throughout North America. Apparently, as a genus, Violas are doing quite well for themselves. Their thrifty use of energy affords them the luxury of creating a sterile flower (and, in some wild varieties, a frivolously floral and girly scent). That’s right, in most species, the flower has no part in reproduction (which is done discretely under leaf cover by a plain-looking seed sac close to the ground), it seems they flower just because they know they‘re gorgeous. Hardly the move of a painfully shy plant, wouldn’t you say?
The Edible Violet
Both violet leaves and flowers are very palatable in salads or as a garnish. The flowers make a conversation-starting edible cake decoration (great for boring weddings and parties). The leaves have a mucilaginous (slippery) quality when chewed and apparently can be used to thicken soups and stews (though I haven’t tried this one, personally). They have a mild, slightly sweet and grassy flavor, and the earlier in the season, the more tender they are (but wait until they flower to make a positive ID). I’m telling you, this common weedy volunteer that you can literally harvest in your yard will have you hailed as a culinary innovator at your next dinner party. The fact that violet blooms at the very end of winter- the most flower deprived, scurvy prone time of year- doesn’t hurt either. In any case, you are a star. Just gather both leaves and flowers from an organically grown lawn or a wild place and toss into salads as desired. For instant class, put one flower in each cell of an ice cube tray, fill with water and freeze, then toss into fancy beverages. Like I said, you’re a star!
The Medicinal Violet
Though cultivated species of Violas also produce edible flowers, wild violets take all of that energy that could be spent on luxuriant growth and height, bigger blooms and a stronger scent (as some of its less thrifty ornamental cousins have done) and invest it in potent, effective medicinal compounds.
Nutritionally, violets supply ample amounts of vitamin C and bioflavonoids such as rutin, making it a useful tonic to those with venous insufficiency such as hemorrhoids, spider veins, varicose veins, broken capillaries and easy bruising. They are also loaded with carotenes, the precursor to Vitamin A. Both of these important vitamins are associated with increased immune function and wound healing. Violet’s a healer, you see. Violet roots reach way down into moist spring soil and pull up vital nutrients and minerals such as Calcium and Magnesium. The leaves become little green vitamin tablets.
Violet leaves also contain a good deal of mucilage, the slippery stuff that appears in your mouth as you chew. This has soothing, moistening effect in the body and is responsible for much of violet’s medicinal activity. Mucilage makes for easy bowel movements, moist, healthy lungs and mucus membranes and it helps soothe and heal abraded tissue externally and internally (g.i. tract, bladder irritations, etc.) Violet has been employed for such diverse conditions as: bronchitis, constipation, urinary tract irritation, and chronic skin conditions.
The presence of chemical compounds called saponins gives violet the ability to dissolve troublesome cysts, tumors and nodules, specifically those in the breasts. Violet has been used for centuries for dissolving both cancerous and benign lumps in the breast. I use it as a preventative for women who are worried about breast cancer and for women with benign lumps or fibrocystic breasts. When a woman has cancer, violet leaves can be a supportive therapy in addition to other treatments, though I wouldn’t rely on violet alone. For cysts, lumps and tumors, the tea or tincture is taken internally and warm compresses are applied externally to the breast and wrapped with a cloth. Susan Weed’s excellent book Breast Cancer? Breast Health! details the use of violet for various breast conditions. Violet is also a gentle lymphatic tonic, aiding the body in removing waste products from the bloodstream. As such, it is an effective detoxifier and a specific remedy for treating chronic skin conditions such as eczema, dry skin, rashes- especially the oozing, weeping variety- and cradle cap in infants. Violet leaf and flower can be consumed as an infusion (tea), tincture, syrup, glycerite or used topically as an oil, compress or poultice for skin conditions. Caution- Plants with a high saponin content can cause nausea and vomiting if taken in excessive doses. I have yet to see this happen, so I imagine the upper limit is pretty high- just a warning to those of you who might try to subsist on violet leaves alone.
Lastly, another name for violet is Heartsease, which refers to its gentle strengthening effect upon the heart. I feel like violet is a soothing friend that cools anger and irritation- like retreating into the shade of a forest on a hot day. (You may actually meet violet there in real life. She likes to keep things shady, moist and low-profile.) When I take violet, I feel restored and nourished, and somehow stronger overall.
The Violet of Lore
Folklore and myth surround this plant. Though the above mentioned, proven benefits were also known and have been employed for the last 2000 years or so, there many uses that may be, ahem, a bit more difficult to explain scientifically. Here are a few gems as reported by Pojar and Mackinnon in the book Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast-
“If violets bloom in autumn, there is going to be a death or epidemic. It is unlucky to bring only a small number of flowers into the house; this may harm the laying capacity of hens;… spiteful neighbours might encourage children to take only one flower home. Violets worn as a wreath around the neck were said to prevent drunkenness.”
As your trusty herbal reporter, held to the highest standards of journalistic integrity, I vow to at least try out the last bit there. And soon. It’s basically my top priority right now.
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