There is something deeply satisfying about continuing a well-known herbal practice. It is comforting to think of joining all the men and women down the centuries who have gone out into the highways and byways at this time of year in search of the delicate violet flower. It is not just her scent which delights us, she bears within her leaves and flowers the amazing ability to treat a score of different conditions and ailments.
The time for harvest is relatively short. The sweet-scented Violet appears at the end of February and has finished blooming by the end of April. Although there are over one hundred different species of violets around the world, there are five native to Great Britain with viola odorata being grown both for her scent and her medicinal properties.
How far back do we need to go to discover how violets were used? They were mentioned frequently by Homer and Virgil. Mrs Grieve tell us they were used by Athenians 'to moderate anger,' to procure sleep and 'to comfort and strengthen the heart.' Pliny prescribed a liniment of Violet root and vinegar for gout and disorder of the spleen, and states that a garland or chaplet of Violets worn about the head would dispel the fumes of wine and prevent headache and dizziness. Who would have considered violet today as a cure for hangovers!
One of the difficulties when searching for the ancient British uses of plants is being able to identify them from the names given to them in Olde English Herbals. Stephen Pollington gives the example of the name Bonewort (bannwyrt) , a plant which was possibly violet or small knapweed. He says the Latin plant name, “viola” could be known in Old English as bannwyrt, cleafre or bofe.
The Olde English Herbarium states “This plant which one calls viola and by another name banwyrt is of three kinds, one then is dark purple and the second white and the third is yellow, the yellow [one] is however of greatest use to leeches” (Leeches is the name given to anyone offering medicinal help) This herbal also notes, “The scent of sweet violets was used by horsemen in their potions for calming troublesome horses.
Mrs Grieve says the ancient Britons used violet flowers as a cosmetic, and in a Celtic poem they are recommended to be employed steeped in goats' milk to increase female beauty. She quotes the Anglo-Saxon translation of the tenth century Herbarium of Apuleius where V. purpureum is recommended 'for new wounds and eke for old' and for 'hardness of the maw.' She also give a recipe from Askham's Herbal printed in 1550 for insomnia, “'For the that may not slepe for sickness seeth this herb in water and at even let him soke well hys feete in the water to the ancles, wha he goeth to bed, bind of this herbe to his temples.”
The use of sweet violets has been fairly consistent over the centuries. It is a plant rich in vitamins. Mary Beith tells of the Gaelic Regimen Sanitatis (Rule of Health ) compiled by John Beaton of Islay in 1563 “After blood-letting, convalescents were to have a light but vitamin –rich meal of kale, mallow, sage and parsley. In summer this was varied with the addition of borage, bugloss, violets, spinach, lettuce, the tops of fennel and other herbs.”
The sixteenth century herbalist, Gerard, used violets for inflammations, especially of the chest. He said “violets make a plate which is most pleasant and wholesome. Especially it comforteth the heart and other inward parts.”
In July 1634, the Stratford herbalist, John Hall, (who was also Shakespeare’s son in law), mentions using “the mild laxative violet syrup” when treating the Poet William Drayden for a tertiary fever six months before his death. Hall must have known his patient was very unwell and needed to be treated gently, because his normal prescriptions for fevers involved emetics administered in oxymels.
This use of violets as a pleasant laxative continued for centuries. Apothecaries during Charles II’s reign regularly sold a conserve called “Violet Plate” to the general public.
The 17th century herbalist, Culpepper used violets not only for inflammations but also for piles. In his treatment, violets were fried with egg yolks and applied to the offending haemorrhoids.
In 1740, Sir John Hill wrote “The flowers are the part used; boiled water is to be poured on them just enough to cover them and it is to stand all night; when it is strained clear off, the sugar is to be added to it at the rate of two pounds to each pint and it is to be melted over the fire. This makes syrup of violets, an excellent gentle purge for children. The leaves are dried also and are used in the decoctions for slyusters. An infusion of them works by urine.” Rogers tells us that the infusion was made from a cold maceration of the flowers and leaves for 8 hours followed by slow warming to preserve the delicate properties of the plant.
Salmon and Pechey, who practiced at the end of 17th century prescribed violets for catarrh, fever, headaches and pleurisy.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century herbalists were still using violets regularly. Kemsey’s British Herbal of 1838 states, “The leaves of the violet are gently laxative. The syrup is used as a purgative to infants.” This use was echoed by Dr Fernie in 1914 when he wrote, “Violet flower syrup mixed with almond oil is a ‘capital laxative for children’.”
Today, although the general public has no idea that violets can be used medicinally, herbalists are still using the flowers and leaves for a wide range of conditions, from coughs, bronchitis and, constipation through eczema to breast cancer. We may have lost the fields of commercially grown violets around Stratford on Avon and other parts of the country, but if you look hard enough, this shy spring flower continues to offer us her bounty.
Beith, M Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands 1995 Polygon ISBN 0 7486 6199 9
Grieve, M A Modern Herbal 1973 (revised) Random House ISBN 1-904779018
Hadfield, G Hadfield’s Herbal : The Secret History of British Plants 2007 Penguin Books ISBN 978 0 140 51577 0
Hawes, Z Wild Drugs: A Forager's guide to healing plants 2010 Octopus Publishing Group ISBN 9781856753104
Lane, J John Hall and his Patients 1996 The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust ISBN 0-90420104X
McIntyre, A The Complete Herbal Tutor 2010 Gaia Books Ltd ISBN 9781856753180
Pollington, S Leechcraft 2000 Anglo-Saxon Books ISBN 1 989281 238
Weed, S Wise Woman Herbal Healing Wise 1989 Ash Tree Publishing ISBN 0 9614620 2 7
Wood, M The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants 2008 North Atlantic Books ISBN 9 781556 436925