Herb to Know: Sweet Violet

To soothe skin issues, increase blood flow, and improve immune health, violet is the herb to know.

| August 2016

  • “Healing Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide to Identifying, Foraging, and Using Medicinal Plants” by Tina Sams
    Photo courtesy of Fair Winds Press
  • Viola odorata, otherwise known as Sweet Violet, is part of the Violaceae family.
    Photo courtesy of Fair Winds Press

As natural home remedies get more popular, the available information about the best herbs, recipes, and treatments for common ailments grows longer and longer. It can be hard to sift through the surplus and find simple, reliable medicinal methods created from basic ingredients. If you agree, then Tina Sams’ book, Healing Herbs (Fair Winds Press, 2015), may be the place to go. Sams focuses her lens on only 20 herbs, but all have a variety of uses, from remedies — of which this book has over 100 — to recipes. Her cures are inexpensive and effective, and you can find or grow any plant she mentions. Healing Herbs makes this vast subject accessible and easy.

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Healing Herbs.

Viola odorata is the most common garden violet, growing wild between blades of grass. The flowers have a sweet, powdery scent and are typically either dark violet or white, the emerald heart-shaped leaves and flowers are all in a rosette, and the leaf stalks have hairs that point downward. The flowers rise quickly above the leaves, only to be overtaken by them as their bloom fades. The flowers appear as early as February and last until the end of April. In early fall, you’ll find the seedpods opening very close to the earth, like tiny three-pointed stars. There is often a very small bloom in autumn too, made all the sweeter by the impending winter.

Violets hold a very warm spot in my heart. I always looked forward to May Day when I was little, and loved to leave little paper cones full of violets and other flowers on the doorknobs of neighbors (most likely to be found days later). Picking thick bundles of the little flowers is one of the few ways to ever actually smell the scent of their perfume. Another is to pick baskets full for syrup or jelly, put most of your face into the basket and inhale deeply — just one long inhalation. After that, it will be gone. In a very odd trick of nature, sweet violets contain a ketone compound called ionone that temporarily desensitizes the receptors in the nose. You get one sniff. After that, ionone has made it impossible to smell it again for a brief time.

Up until the 1940s violet essential oil was made through an exhaustive and low-yielding method of enfleurage and solvent extraction. Then, synthetic approximations became much more profitable and therefore more commonplace. Violet leaf essential oil is available today; however, it’s quite expensive. Every spring or summer, I attempt to distill it myself, but so far it hasn’t worked out. I obtain a great hydrosol, but as yet no essential oil.

Violets have a rich history. They were Napoleon’s signature flower, and he covered Josephine’s grave with them. In ancient Greece violets were the official symbol of Athens, and wines were scented with them. In Footnotes to the Violet, John Reismiller writes, “The Greek dramatist, Aristophanes, referred to Athens in one of his plays as the violet-crowned city because the name of the king who was crowned there (Ion) and the flower (ion = violet) were the same. The English historian Macaulay used the same epithet for that ancient city when he wrote of it and it has been emblematic of it ever since.” Violet is still the emblem of Toulouse, France. A golden violet is presented today at the Academie Francaise as an award.

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