Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Viola sororia, or the Common Blue Violet. Beautiful yet often overlooked, violet is a useful and widespread edible and medicinal plant. I probably sound like a broken record by now, but this plant is yet another example of a common lawn “weed” that’s far more useful than bland, generic grass.
Violet is a perennial herbaceous forb that has two very interesting means of reproduction: It can seed sexually by conventional means, that is, through pollinated flowers that turn to viable seed. However, it also has an ingenious backup plan: If its above-ground flowers get killed off by a late frost, violet also has underground flowers that sprout off the rootstock and never see the light of day. They are self-pollinated and will seed and sprout entirely underground.
The Viola genus is widespread and diverse, containing between 550 and 900 species worldwide depending on which taxonomist you ask. They inhabit temperate areas on every continent except Antarctica. Specific identification can be highly confusing as different species often inhabit the same areas and commonly cross-pollinate, creating even more hybrid species. The good news is, it really doesn’t matter. Any blue violets in Georgia, be it Common Violet, Confederate Violet (white blooms with purple streaks), or the introduced European Sweet Violet, all have similar edible and medicinal properties. Yellow violets, although closely related, are not as advisable for eating. Their leaves have a soapy flavor that indicate high levels of saponins. Violets are a class II edible – every part of the plant above ground is edible, but the roots are somewhat toxic. There are also some toxic mimics, so positive identification is paramount.
Despite their prolific purple flowers, the easiest way to identify violets is by their leaves. They are dark green, heart-shaped, and have rounded teeth along the edges and fine hairs on the underside. Nothing else looks quite like them, so if you see a purple-flowered plant without dark green heart-shaped leaves, it’s probably not a violet. As we always say, if you’re in doubt, don’t eat it.
Violets like open, shaded areas with rich soil and plenty of moisture. They’re common in shaded lawns, abandoned home sites, and rich, open woods. They are a useful bioindicator – they can’t handle high levels of air pollution, so if you see violets, your air quality is probably good. Violets spread quickly and densely, and are rarely found alone. A big patch of violets is quite a sight to behold, looking like a rich dark green carpet covered in purple confetti.
Violet is a very nutritious edible plant. According to an early study, its leaves contain twice the vitamin C of oranges and twice the vitamin A of spinach. They are also high in soluble fiber and trace minerals. Soluble fiber, or mucilage, is great for intestinal health, as it’s a prime food source for beneficial bacteria in your gut. So I suppose violet leaves could count as a probiotic. The leaves have a slightly astringent flavor, and are best harvested right now in the early spring. Summer leaves are fibrous and bitter. Like many other wild greens, violet leaves can be used in place of spinach in a variety of recipes. They are just fine alone in a salad or mixed with other greens, or they can also be used in soups and stews. Violet flowers are also edible, and highly nutritious as well. They have a milder flavor than the leaves and make a cool garnish if you’re into that kind of thing.
Violet is also a useful medicinal plant. A tea made from the leaves is generally considered the best way to use the plant for internal medicine. If you’ve ever seen us make plantain tea, the process is similar. Crush, bruise, or cut up a small handful of leaves, combine with 16oz or so of water, and steep just below boiling for 5-10 mins. This tea is useful for treating colds and respiratory infections, as it is a bronchodilator, expectorant, and anti-inflammatory. Part of this may be due to the fact that it contains trace amounts of salicylic acid. It has also been used traditionally as a gentle laxative and digestive stimulator, and perhaps most interestingly as a lymphatic stimulant. The tea is also known for producing a calming effect – not a sedative, just a mild anxiolytic. Violet has no recorded interactions with prescription medications, and is safe for pregnant and nursing women as well. Externally, a poultice made from the leaves and flowers is cooling, soothing, and anti-inflammatory. This makes it a great remedy for eczema, hemorrhoids, insect bites, and superficial burns.
Violets have a long association with the coming of spring in various cultures throughout the world, which is not surprising as they’re one of the first flowers to brave the cold and bloom out in late winter. The violet had great significance to the ancient Athenians, who wove necklaces and garlands out of European sweet violet blossoms for revelers to wear at their wild, wine-fueled spring equinox festivals. They believed violet moderated anger, strengthened the heart, and helped prevent “wine fumes” and next-day hangover headaches. The trace amounts of salicylic acid (aspirin) may mean the Athenians were on to something. At any rate, violets across the world are a welcome herald of spring, and a sign that warmer, longer, richer days are ahead. Did we miss anything about violet species? Know any other uses of this plant? Tell us in the comments!