Sweet Violet, the scent of spring
(Viola odorata) by Sarah Head
Matthew Wood says violets have a long history of use in European medicine especially the blue varieties. He says the leaves and flowers together are used. He says they have a sweet, slightly mucilaginous, slightly salty taste and cool impression. Violets contain flavonoids, mucilage, salicylates, tannins, essential oils, an alkaloid, saponins and minerals (especially calcium and magnesium). The root and seeds contain a substance like emetine, which causes vomiting, hence only the leaves and flowers are used in herbalism.
Violet is suited to cases where the mucosa is dry, when expectoration needs to be increased. It has an affinity to the lymphatic system and is indicated when there is lymphatic stagnation and swollen glands often in the throat and around the ears, in association with dry skin and constipation. As a moistening agent it acts on the kidneys, bladder and chronic arthritic deposits and skin conditions such as eczema.
Violet is described as an “alterative” or “blood purifier”, a perfect addition to spring salads or mineral-rich hot, long infusions. Add violets to red clover, plantain and nettles if you are looking to maximise the mineral content of your tea or combine violets with hawthorn and oatstraw for a more soothing and nourishing infusion.
From times long past violet has been used to soothe hot, dry coughs such as whooping cough, congestion and sore throats. If you are looking for a soothing juice made from the weeds in your garden, try a combination of plantain, chickweed, violet and mallow/marshmallow leaves. Pick the leaves, wash them if necessary then liquidise with some cold water. Leave the blended liquid for a short while before blending again then strain and drink.
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.
The most commonly used violet preparation throughout history is violet syrup. 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.
I first came across this syrup in Susun Weed's "Healing Wise" book and Zoe Hawes uses the same methodology in her recipe for violet syrup in "Wild drugs, a forager's guide to healing plants".
Fill a clean glass jar with violet flowers, cover with boiling water and leave overnight with the lid screwed on. The next day, strain and measure the infused liquid. For every 7fl ozs of liquid add 5 ozs of sugar. Zoe Hawes also recommends adding a good squeeze of lemon juice. Put all the ingredients into a pan and bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Pour the resulting syrup into a sterilised bottle or jar, seal, label and date. Store in the fridge and discard if it starts going mouldy.
The suggested dosage for a child’s cough or slight constipation is 1-2tsps given at bedtime. If you are making this for a child under two years old and usually make your syrups with honey, use sugar this time.
The first time I made this syrup I couldn’t find many flowers, but I covered them with a cupful of boiling water and sealed them in a glass jar for 24 hours. (The recipe says overnight, but I was busy and couldn't get back to them until early afternoon.)
The strained liquid smelt green and uninviting and tasted of nothing much. I was expecting a subtle aroma of violet, but I think it was too cold for the flowers to produce any scent! For 5 fl ozs (1cup) of liquid I added 3ozs of sugar and put it in a pan to bring to the boil while sterilising a glass jar in the oven. Zoe's recipe suggested adding a good squeeze of lemon juice to the mixture, so I found a forgotten half lemon in the fridge, squeezed it and added the juice to the heating syrup.
This is where magic occurred - the syrup suddenly turned the most delightful shade of pink! I realise it was probably just a litmus reaction to adding the acidic lemon juice, but a fantastic herbal demonstration for children!
When the syrup had been brought to the boil and simmered for a couple of minutes, I strained it out through muslin into the sterilised jar, labelled and dated it and left it to cool on the kitchen table. It is now stored in the fridge.
Violet is not a single season plant. Although the purple flowers disappear in April, the leaves continue to grow throughout the year and are best gathered for oil making or for drying in the summer and autumn when the leaves grow to their largest size.
Up until this year I have used violets mainly as a double infused oil to offer added moisture to any salve I am making. Like heartsease, violets are good for irritable skin conditions and play their part in soothing troubled hearts. They are also a wonderful teaching aid. Anyone who visits my gardens 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 teach me the wealth of support she is able to offer to mankind.
Hawes, Z Wild Drugs: A Forager's guide to healing plants 2010 Octopus Publishing Group ISBN 9781856753104
McIntyre, A The Complete Herbal Tutor 2010 Gaia Books Ltd ISBN 9781856753180
McVicar, J Jekka’s Complete Herb Book 1994 Kyle Cathie Ltd 1 85626346 0
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