April 22, 2015

Time to Gather Violets - Photo by John Lodder/Flickr (HobbFarms.com)

I love this time of year. Taking a walk in the yard right now is a tour of possibility. There are small flowers hiding in unexpected places, leaves just beginning to unfurl, and tiny seedlings that could wind up being any number of plants or weeds have begun to appear.

Yesterday was my monthly class day for the second-year students enrolled in my herbalist apprenticeship program, and I like to taste the plants we’re studying by making single-plant teas. I had already made up teas with some of the herbs we discussed, but I waited to make the teas for meadowsweet, sage and violet until all three were up and thriving on our farm. Whenever possible, it’s good to make your tea with the fresh plant versus the dried one.

Wandering across the pasture, I was so focused on new green leaves that the first splash of white was jarring. Just outside the gate I noticed a small, white blooming violet. Most people think only of a purple bloom when they imagine this flower. The truth is, that you can find violet species growing wild throughout the United States in shades of white, purple and yellow. They share some common traits.


Identifying Violets

All violets tend to be small plants, growing a maximum of 4 to 6 inches high. If you lie down on the ground with any one of these beauties and look more closely, you’ll see they all have similar heart-shaped leaves, though some will be smooth and others will be hairy. The flower itself tends to carry the typical “Mickie Mouse” petal arrangement, with two petals arranged together at the top of the flower like ears and three petals arranged together at the bottom like a face.

Time to Gather Violets - Photo by Melanie J Watts/Flickr (HobbFarms.com)

If you look a bit closer, you’ll notice a few lines of color running down the throat of the flower. In the pollinator world, these lines are similar to airport runway lights or freeway exit signs. They very clearly mark the way the pollinator is to go get the nectar. If the obliging insect lines its body up with these arrows, their back is sure to rub against the brushes containing pollen, which from either above or the sides. Remember, this plant doesn’t have legs, so it must co-opt the legs of someone else. When you want to train your dog to sit, you give her a command and then follow that with a treat. When the plant world wants to spread their pollen to a neighboring flower, they brush it off onto the back of an obliging pollinator and reward them with a nectar treat.

Here are some of the violets you might find in your area:

  • Viola odorata: fragrant and purple
  • Viola pedunculata: yellow and found in California
  • Viola pubescens: yellow and found in very northern areas
  • Viola rostrata: purple with an exaggerated spur on the back of the flower
  • Viola sororia: the common violet, can be white or purple
  • Viola tricolor: introduced Johnny jump-up or heartsease; the color of the petals are different top to bottom
  • Viola biflora: yellow and found in the West
  • Viola glabella: yellow and found in woodland streams
  • Viola labradorica: the dog violet; purple and found in the East


Using Your Violets

All of our wild violets are edible and delicious to boot. They can be candied and added to confections. This time of year, you might collect the flowers and make a syrup for that congestion that won’t let go or for someone with chronic headaches. The leaves and flowers have both been used for their high vitamin C content since the time of the Native Americans. The plant is delicious both cooked or fresh in a salad. It’s heart-shaped leaves have led to its historical use as a heart tonic, especially for those who are grieving.

It’s a special kind of magic to spend a spring morning collecting violets for food or medicine. The blushing violet has long been associated with innocence and purity. You can’t help but feel a bit of your childhood returning while employed in this chore.

Read more about edible flowers on HobbyFarms.com:

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