Herb to Know: Sweet Violet

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

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.

Violet blossoms and leaves are higher in vitamin C than any domestic green vegetable. They also contain vitamin A. Both of those vitamins are very important to immune function and wound healing. I don’t see a lot of references to eating these as vegetables in the long-ago history when we lived on the contents of our root cellars and whatever we preserved (as we often see with dandelion), but we should have. There are lots of vital minerals, especially calcium and magnesium, available in the leaves, too. The leaves and flowers contain rutin, a bioflavonoid that is helpful in the treatment of venous insufficiency and lowered blood flow to various parts of the body. Specifically, hemorrhoids and varicose veins may respond to violet.

The leaves especially contain saponins and mucilage. Last year I attempted to distill the tender early green leaves. The steam passing through those delicate leaves changed it into a mass of bubbling goo within half an hour. Removing it from the flask, it was silky, slippery, and mucilaginous. Who says we don’t learn anything from our mistakes? The saponins are helpful in dissolving all kinds of lumps and cysts, most traditionally used for the breasts. The mucilage improves the health and moisture of mucous membranes, which helps maintain bowel regularity, supports lung function, and soothes the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts. These qualities also make violet a good, gentle option for dry skin, acne, cradle cap, and eczema. Externally for the skin, it can be used as an infused oil (for dry, scaly skin) or a poultice for conditions such as acne.

Medicinal Benefits

• Treats skin issues
• Supports gastrointestinal health
• Boosts immune function
• Heals wounds
• Improves blood flow

More from Healing Herbs:

Herb to Know: Yarrow
Guide to a Flower and Oatmeal Facial
Recipe for Nettle and Wild Violet Body Cream

Reprinted with permission from Healing Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide to Identifying, Foraging, and Using Medicinal Plants by Tina Sams, published by Fair Winds Press, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Healing Herbs.

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