By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator
As I sit down to write this article about one of my favorite spring plants, the snow outside is flying, adding to our record-breaking, epic winter. But despite the piles of snow that remain in our streets and yards, the thaw has begun, the days are warming, and we will soon see the plants re-emerge from their slumber. This is certainly a month full of hope and renewal.
I could not think of a better plant to symbolize spring’s feeling of renewal than the sweet violet flower. With its tender, young, heart-shaped leaves, and its brilliantly colored purple flowers, it is truly a balm to a winter-weary spirit. As the violets bravely emerge in chilly temperatures and before most other plants, I think of them as sweet love letters unfolding from the earth.
One of our best and most nutritious wild spring edibles, violet leaves and flowers are high in Vitamins A & C. You can eat them raw, plucked right from the garden; I like to add them to fresh salads for a beautiful spring touch.
Violet has a slight mucilaginous quality to it, which means it contains a type of polysaccharide that imparts a viscous quality to water when extracted – a quality that is extremely soothing and cooling to mucous membranes. As such, violets can help calm inflammatory conditions, whether it is itchy skin, inflammation in the gut, or a scratchy, sore throat. Use violets on any irritated tissue – they will provide a cooling and soothing relief. Or as the famous English herbalist Culpepper said, “All the Violets are cold and moist, and are used to cool any heat or distemperature of the body, either inwardly or outwardly.”
Violet is also known as a traditional “blood purifier” or alterative herb. This makes it a wonderful and gently detoxifying plant for the spring season, helping our bodies to wake up from the winter and move along any stagnation. Just as the sap in the trees starts to move, so must we move the inner fluids of our bodies, especially through the filter of our lymphatic system. Violet is one of our best lymphatic herbs and is often used to support the removal of toxins from the system. Herbalist Matthew Wood especially recommends violet for “lymphatic stagnation and swollen glands, often in the throat or around the ears.”
If you read old herbal texts from a few centuries ago you will discover that violet was also prescribed as a support for emotional upset – it was said to “comfort and strengthen the heart” and to “to moderate anger.” Violet has an amazing ability to bring its soothing comfort to any inflammatory situation, whether physical or emotional.
Botanically speaking, the violet plant is quite unique. Violets actually produce two different kinds of flowers – first the spring-born flowers (which attract both bees and humans alike). Usually, however, these flowers do not produce seed. Later in the season, violets produce a second kind of flower that grows close to the earth, or underground. Called cleistogamous flowers, these hidden blooms do not usually fully open, and are self-pollinated. Try pulling away the leaves of a clump of violet in late summer or early fall to find these unusual, pale flowers. If you happen to find a seed pod, take a peek inside – you will be most amazed to find a capsule full of luminous, iridescent seeds that shimmer in the sunlight. The first time I discovered the hidden secret of the humble violet, it took my breath away with its beauty.
HOW TO FORAGE AND USE:
Violets are abundant in early spring, and may even spontaneously grow in your backyard or garden. As with harvesting any wild plant, be sure that you are collecting plants in an area that is free from contamination. It is always a good idea to test your soil for heavy metals, and to stay away from collecting near busy roadsides.
Once you have determined a suitable place to harvest your violets, you can pluck the young leaves and flowers when they first emerge and eat them raw in fresh salads. Violets are in their prime when the weather is still cool, so take advantage of the flowers while they are available. Once the weather turns warm, only the leaves will remain.
You can also use dried violet leaf and flower when the fresh plant is not available, but the vivid purple-blue color of the flower will fade once dried. To make a violet infusion, steep up to 1 Tblsp. dried leaf in 8 oz. hot water for at least 10-15 minutes. If you would like to extract more of the soothing, mucilaginous qualities mentioned above, steep the dried leaf in cold water instead, which will preserve the beneficial polysaccharides.
Violet blends well with other herbs such as rose, oat tops and linden for a relaxing tea.
Note: The Violet we speak of here (Viola odorata and related species) is NOT the same as the indoor houseplant, the African Violet, which is unrelated and poisonous. Be sure to only use plants you have positively identified.
A Spring Recipe: VIOLET SYRUP adapted from herbalist Susan Weed
1/2 pound fresh violet flowers
2 cups water
2 cups raw honey
Enlist all the help you can to pick violet blossoms. Boil the water and pour over the fresh blossoms; cover. Let steep overnight in nonmetallic container. The next day, strain out the flowers and reserve the bright purple liquid. Combine the violet infusion and honey in a saucepan. Simmer gently, stirring, for ten or fifteen minutes, until it seems like syrup. Fill clean jars. Cool. Keep well chilled to preserve.
Steph Zabel is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world. She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness sessions, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, a community herbal conference. Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.
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