It may be hard to believe, looking out the window at endless white snow, or long stretches of beige lawn and bare trees, but soon the grass will be green and flowers will begin to bloom. If you are among the wise and don’t treat your lawn, you may be lucky and violets will be sprinkled throughout the grass in slightly shaded areas. Violets have been appreciated for their pretty purple flowers and sweet fragrance for centuries. Pure essential oil of violets is one of the most expensive flower essences.
As a child, I picked little bouquets, and I still pick blossoms to put on canapés or tiny cupcakes for spring tea parties and to dry for potpourris. I also use the blooms and leaves in salads. Cooked leaves are often used as a thickening agent in soups and stews. The flowers can be made into syrups, candies, tea, and jelly.
Violets are easy-to-grow perennials that are happiest in good soil and dappled sunlight. Early farmers often observed the violets growing in their pastures as an indicator of soil fertility: the more abundant the flowers, the better the soil. Few flowers meant the soil needed amendments. Violets spread by seed. The most common color is purple, but white or yellow can also be found. Here, purple violets are abundant in the lawn behind the potager, while the white and yellow ones are abundant in the adjacent woods. The violet is the state flower of Wisconsin, Illinois, Rhode Island and New Jersey.
Recent research has found that eating violets greatly reduces tumor formation and the recurrence of many cancers, especially breast cancer. The Romans made garlands of violets to ease headache or prevent a hangover. The Greeks made poultices of the leaves for inflamed eyes or bedsores. Greek women applied violets mixed with goat’s milk to have a beautiful complexion. American colonists made a syrup of violet flowers to ease bronchitis and asthma.
Violets are a symbol of faithfulness and modesty. Most cultures believed the heart-shaped leaves indicated the plant was beneficial to romance. Combining violets with a single red rose in a small bouquet expresses never-ending love. Mythology says that Zeus loved the nymph Io, and to protect her from his jealous wife, he turned her into a white heifer. Io cried when she had to eat rough grass, so Zeus took pity on her and turned her tears into sweet flowers, violets. The Greek word “Io” means “violet.” Some versions of the myth say that the jealous wife, Hera, actually turned Io into a cow, and because Zeus could not turn her back into a nymph, he attempted to make her life as pleasant as possible by giving her a diet of violets.
Violets are a wonderful addition to the herb garden, providing color, Vitamin C, fragrance and flavor from some of the sometimes difficult shadier spots in the garden. They are a benefit to many insects and a host plant for some species of butterflies. True violets are sometimes hard to find in garden centers, but their cousins the violas and pansies are common cool weather offerings. If planned to use for culinary or medicinal purposes, be certain they have not been grown with chemicals, which can not only be harmful to you, but to any pollinators that may visit them.