‘Wild’ yards are things of beauty in the spring time! Weeds to one, are salad greens, seasonings, or medicine to another. From the tiny white flowers adorning chickweed to the deep purple and green blossoms of henbit, unkempt, springtime yards are happy rainbows of color.
It is impossible to pick a favorite yard herb or spring flower, but, if forced to choose, the wild violet would rank in my top five. White, cream, lavender, violet (!), plum, yellow – there is such variety. Low growing, with dark green, heart-shaped leaves, you will also hear them called Johnny-jump-ups, heart’s-ease, violas, or pansies (nurseries supply bedding plants of the same name). With hundreds of species growing throughout most of the northern hemisphere, common violets are not hard to find.
This year, instead of considering them “noxious weeds”, try to see violets in a new light. A feast for the eyes they may be; but did you know that most species of the genus Viola are edible and medicinal? If you have these delicate beauties in your area, you have found true herbal treasure. Here are a few ways to enjoy them:
As border plants – wild violets transplant easily and love shady to semi-shady areas. Find the low leaf rosettes in late winter or very early spring and move them before the flower stems appear. Early garden color is your reward and honeybees love them. The plants may die back with the strong heat of summer but will return in force each year. Leave plenty of room for them to fill vacant areas of your bed and share freely if invasive or thin the crowd to the compost bin.
To brighten a spring meal – violet blossoms are beautiful and tasty additions to many dishes. Clip the blossoms fresh from the plant, give them a rinse, and sprinkle them over fresh vegetable salads, sandwich fillings, or a favorite, cold beverage. If harvested early, float the flowers in a bowl of water and refrigerate until needed (pretty containers, filled with floating violets, are delightful placed throughout the house or as a springtime centerpiece). The leaves, very high in vitamin C, also make an interesting addition to the salad bowl.
Centered on cakes and pastries – rinsed, dried, and sugared they become cheery confections. You will need one egg white (preferably organic), whisked thoroughly; a small, new paintbrush (which will only and forever be used in food preparation); and superfine sugar. Instead of clipping the blooms from the stem, leave most of it to use as a handle. Best known as candied violets, these treats could take a few hours to dry, so give yourself plenty of time to create.
Whisk the egg in a small bowl and pour some of the sugar into another. Lay out a cooling rack or two; have the paintbrush at hand; and prepare a moist towel to keep your fingers sugar-free. Holding each flower by the stem and working with them one at a time, lightly brush a thin coat of egg white on both sides of the blossom. Immediately sprinkle sugar on both sides and shake to remove the excess. Lay them gently on the rack to dry. Once dried, you may need to do a little touch up to any uncoated spots. Let them dry completely before use or storage and be sure to remove the stems. Enjoy these delicacies immediately or layer them between parchment or waxed paper, in a sturdy container, and freeze for use throughout the year. Take them out as desired to decorate any of your favorite sweet treats!
Steeped for a delicious, healthful tea – the leaves and blossoms have been used for centuries to treat or calm many inflammatory complaints. Full of vitamins, minerals, salicylic acid, and anti-inflammatory properties, steeping a cup of violet tea is good for what ails you. Use one to two teaspoons fresh leaves or flowers, or one tablespoon dried, to one cup of boiling water, cover, and leave for three to four minutes. Sweeten with honey, if desired. (Always research herbal medicines before administering them. The information in this article is not intended as advice to diagnose or treat any disease or sickness.)
Used as outdoor first aid – when wounds, stings, or abrasions happen, grab a handful of sweet violets. Macerated leaves or flowers, placed on any skin ailment, brings relief and begins healing. The plant can also be made into a poultice, an herbal first aid rinse, or a salve.
Cooked into a simple syrup, infused in oil or honey, eaten raw or sauteed – dried, sipped, or sugared – jellied and poulticed and steeped, wild violets are a mainstay of herbalists across the country. Let this be the season to try something new. Take a look around and find those plants of the family Violaceae – they are a great introduction to wild herbs for happiness and health!
Note – Never harvest wild foods or herbs from places sprayed with chemicals of any kind. If you are uncomfortable harvesting wild foods, take along an experienced forager or consult a field guide or online resource.