Sweet Violet – A Foraging Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses

There are around 400 species of violet found in the world, many of which are economically important.

With so many species to distinguish between and so many popular names to identify them, in literature there is often much confusion around the description of ‘violet’.

For instance, the purple-coloured varieties of the flower can be distinguished from the rest by the Greek name ion, from which the purple colour ianthine is derived.

Another explanation for the name Io is the Greek myth of Zeus, or Jupiter, and his lover Io.

The king of the gods changed Io into a cow to hide her from his jealous wife Hera, or Juno, and then created violets as food for the cow.

For this reason, the violet is sometimes known as Jupiterbloem or ‘Jupiter’s flower’ in Flemish.

Geoffrey Grigson suggests that what really pulled the violet out of obscurity was its scent. He writes:

“Scent suggested sex, so the violet was a flower of Aphrodite and also of her son Priapus, the deity of gardens and generation…A flower so deeply and finely scented must also have its virtues in physic.”

Scientific Name

Viola odorata

Family

Violaceae

Botanical Description

Nearly all violets have five-petalled flowers. The flowers of V. odorata are sweetly fragrant and deep purple. The leaves are usually dark green, oval-shaped and slightly hairy. The creeping roots are short and stout. 

Status

Perennial. Native.

Habitat and Distribution

Violets are a popular flower in cottage garden. The plant also favours hedgerows and woodlands.

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)
Photo Identification of Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)

Parts Used for Food

Flowers and leaves.

Harvest Time

January, February, March, April.

Food Uses of Sweet Violet

Violet flowers can be crystallised and used as edible decorations. The flowers also make a pretty garnish sprinkled over salads, omelettes, cakes and desserts.

Violet tea is easily made by pouring hot water over the petals or flower heads.

The chopped leaves can be added to salads and soups, or dipped in batter and fried as an appetiser.

The leaves also make a tasty sandwich in bread and butter.

Sweet Violet Recipes

Nutritional Profile

Violet leaves are high in vitamin C as well as containing vitamin A and various other minerals and saponins. Research suggests the plant also has significant antioxidant activity.

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)
Photo Identification of Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)

Herbal Medicine Uses of Sweet Violet

Violet root is used in remedies for coughs, colds, bronchitis and sore throats because of their expectorant and stimulating effects.

The root is also used to make eyewashes, mouthwashes and to treat thrush.

Violet leaf tea can also be drunk for coughs.

The leaves are considered to be antiseptic and can be taken internally as a tea or externally as a compress.

Other Uses

V. odorata is one of the most economically important species of violet. It is grown commercially in southern France for the production of essential oils in the manufacture of perfume, flavouring and cosmetics.

Around 100 g of flowers are used to produce 31 g of essential oil of violet by a process of macerating the petals in hot fat.

About 1000 g of violet leaves are used to produce 400 g of violet absolute.

The absolute and essential oil have a wide variety of uses in perfumes and cosmetics for hair and skin.

Safety Note

Several sources suggest that overuse of violet can be harmful, thus it is a herb to use in moderation. Side effects may include vomiting. In addition, it’s thought best to avoid using violet during pregnancy and when breastfeeding.

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)
Photo Identification of Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)
Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)
Photo Identification of Sweet Violet (Viola odorata)

References

Cleene, M. de & Lejeune, M. C. (2002) Compendium of symbolic and ritual plants in Europe. Ghent: Man & Culture.

Grzeszczuk, M. et al. (2016) Biological value of various edible flower species. Acta Scientiarum Polonorum Hortorum Cultus. 15 (2), 109–119.

Karalliedde, L. et al. (2008) Traditional herbal medicines: a guide to their safer use. London: Hammersmith.

Kunkel, G. (1984) Plants for human consumption: an annotated checklist of the edible phanerogams and ferns. Koenigstein: Koeltz Scientific Books.

Le Strange, R. (1977) A history of herbal plants. London: Angus and Robertson.

Lim, T. K. (2012) Edible medicinal and non-medicinal plants: volume 1, fruits. Dordrecht: Springer.

Rohde, E. S. (1921) A garden of herbs. New York: Philip Lee Warner.

Runyon, L. (2007) The essential wild food survival guide. Shiloh: Wild Food Company.

Uphof, J. C. T. (1959) Dictionary of economic plants. New York: H.R. Engelmann.

Wyse Jackson, P. (2013) Ireland’s generous nature: the past and present uses of wild plants in Ireland. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.

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