They say violets flower from the end of winter until early Spring, but I will always associate them with Mothering Sunday. We would go to our local Cotswold church and be given bunches of primroses and violets to pass on to our mother as a small gift.
One year, Rev Walker, gave us a special card to go with our flowers. My sister’s card was a picture of a chancel with sun cascading in through the window and an appropriate verse, mine was a bunch of violets.
I always loved their scent. It was one of the perfumes of spring, delicate and short-lived. To me it bore no resemblance to the commercially scented sweets my grandmother sometimes offered.
There were few cars along our narrow country roads when I was young. It was safe enough for my sister and I to cycle the short way to the local quarry – then a dumping ground for the village. We would go to see what had been left, clambering over piles of earth to reach the farthest point where our small garden lay. There we transplanted snowdrops, primroses and violets, watching them grow and flourish in the warmth of each new spring before summer covered everything with nettles and we stayed at home.
We had no primroses or violets on our farm, so we dug up a few plants from our quarry garden and took them elsewhere – primroses in the garden and violets sheltered behind wiry hawthorn trees where they would be safe from cattle or sheep.
Those hawthorn trees are now part of the Sanctuary and violets spread a bright green carpet across the earth.
Susun Weed was the first person to draw my attention to violet as a medicinal herb in her book, Healing Wise. She talked about violet’s nutritional support for women. Her words were wonderful, but they didn’t mean anything to me until Rebecca Hartman, Kiva Rose Hardin and Darcey Blue French were discussing the amounts of mucilage present in leaves of viola odorata’s cousin, viola tricola (heartease).
“I wonder what they mean,” I thought to myself, never having chewed a violet leaf.
A few days later I was wandering by myself in the Sanctuary. Taking my courage in both hands, I plucked two violet leaves and chewed them. There was no real flavour, but as the leaves decomposed in my mouth, I discovered the mucilage.
It was a revelation – fleeting, but noticeable. It reminded me of the tiny remains after the shell of a Smartie had been carefully crushed between my teeth as a child and worked until a scrap of goo remained.
I now understood what mucilaginous and demulcent meant.
Like all herbs, violet is not just one thing. For a start, her scented purple flowers are not true flowers at all. Those appear later. They are green and hide underneath leaves where no-one can see them.
Violet is described as an “alterative” or “blood purifier”, a perfect addition to spring salads or mineral-rich hot, long infusions. Susun Weed adds her to red clover, plantain and nettles. Jim Mcdonald likes to combine her with hawthorn and oatstraw.
From times long past violet has been used to soothe hot, dry coughs such as whooping cough, congestion and sore throats. Rebecca Hartman has a lovely recipe for blender juice made from “weeds from your lawn” – plantain, chickweed, violet and mallows. She picks the leaves, washes them if necessary then throws them in her liquidiser with some cold water, blends, then leaves them for a short while before blending again then straining and drinking.
It is important to use cold water if you want to extract the most mucilage from a plant. It is the mucilage which coats and soothes the dry throat and chest. It can also help with irritated bowels or be sponged on sunburn.
Violet is not a single season herb. The leaves grow all year round, even surviving the recent months of snow and ice. Something has been feasting on the violet leaves in my garden and the ones in the Sanctuary look very small and fragile, but vibrant. I only found three flowers blooming last weekend, so I won’t be making violet syrup this year.
Susun Weed’s recipe for violet syrup
1/2 pound/225g fresh violets
2 cups/500ml water
2 cups/500ml honey
Enlist all the help you can to pick violet blossoms. Boil water; pour over blossoms; cover. Let steep overnight in nonmetallic container. Strain out flowers. Reserve purple liquid. Combine violet infusion and honey. Simmer gently, stirring, for ten or fifteen minutes, until it seems like syrup. Fill clean jars. Cool. Keep well chilled to preserve.
Violet syrup from the altnature.com website
Pour 1 pint of boiling water over 1 cup packed, of fresh crushed flowers and leaves, cover and let stand for 12 hours. Strain and squeeze through cloth, add 2 lb. of sugar and boil for 1 hour or until syrupy. Store in glass jar. Give 1 tbs. (1 tsp. for children) 2 or 3 times a day.
Violets contain many different compounds including vitamins A&C and salicylic acid, which means it can be taken for headaches, migraines, body pain and as a sedative. Apparently work is also being done with breast cysts – using violet both internally and externally as a poultice – and with HIV and cancers. It’s not a good idea to eat the roots unless you need an emetic!
I use her mainly as a double infused oil to offer added moisture to any salve I am making. Like her cousin, heartsease, she is good with irritable skin conditions and plays her part in soothing troubled hearts. She is also a wonderful teaching aid. Anyone who visits the Sanctuary is offered a leaf to chew, a new experience to bring delight and wonder.
Violets allow me to focus on both past and present. Their scent reminds me of a carefree childhood, while their leaves show me the wealth of support she is able to offer to mankind.