by Kaylin Beach, Museum Educator & Volunteer Coordinator
Spring has sprung! The fields at the Accokeek Foundation are dotted with little white, purple, and blue blossoms as weeds bloom. Among the chickweed, garlic mustard, creeping charlie, however, I find a welcome sign of beauty and strength: Violets!
These delicate little flowers almost blend into the grass, their purplish blossoms hiding amongst the tall blades and fallen leaves leftover from the mild winter we had this past year. Yet, the sign of these is far greater than just a stunning sight. The violet is an incredible flower, whose story is seldom ever told, often being overshadowed by crocus and daffodil in the celebration of spring. Yes, I am rather fond of these simple beauties, and by the end of this conversation, you might be as well.
Scientific Name: Viola Sororia
The common blue violet is native to North America. Commonly found growing wild, this tiny plant is amazing! Many folks consider it a weed for its haphazard appearance in lawns, sidewalks, etc…, but it is definitely not a weed. The confederate violet (white flowers with blue streaks) is an escaped cultivar of the blue variety and pops up in the Southeastern states. The sweet violet is the most popular of the species, cultivated in Europe. Much of the American usage stems from European influence.
The species blossoms in early spring, dying off by the end of April and will bloom again in the fall and even in the winter (depending on your hardiness zones). There are over 500 species of violets around the world, but I am going to focus specifically on the species found in North America for this conversation.
Wild Edibles: Both the leaves and flowers of the common blue violet, along with other types of violet, are edible. They can be added to salads, pesto, sandwiches, and wraps. While the flowers don’t necessarily have a taste associated with them, they provide added color and fun to the dishes they ornament. The roots are not considered edible and will make you sick if you do eat them. The leaves can be eaten raw or sautéed/steamed. Throw them on a sandwich or mix them into a spring salad for a nutritional meal. You can also freeze the flowers into ice cubes for a fun splash of color in a summer lemonade. Both the blue and white flowered species are edible, but some say that the leaves of some wild violets taste soapy.
As with any wild edible, you should definitely do your research about the species in your area, just to find out what species you have and what they are best used for. Also, before eating anything out of your yard, make sure you know what pesticides/weed killers (if any) have been used. Pesticides are incredibly harmful to the human body. Before picking and eating a violet, ensure that you have correctly identified the flower. There are violet look-alikes, which are poisonous. A good wild-flower or wild-edible guidebook is a great buy if you plan to forage frequently.
Historical Uses: In the 18th century, violet flowers were candied and eaten that way. Perhaps you’ve seen candied violets decorating the top of a cake or cookie in the 21st century? That was made popular during the 18th century. Of course, to acquire enough sugar to candy violets, the cost would be somewhat extravagant. Candied violets were not a common dish for the middling classes or lower, but frequently ornamented the desserts of the wealthy and prestigious in the community. If a lower-class family candied violets, they wouldn’t have done so very often, but possibly on special occasions. An excellent simple recipe for candied violets can be found in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery.
Candied violets were incredibly popular in France. As early as 1625, cookbooks began listing recipes for candied violets, syrup of violets, and more. Of course, with the amount of sugar listed in these recipes, one must wonder about the possible health issues that arose from candied violet consumption.
Some historical violet recipes, for your culinary pleasure:
Medicinal Uses: The leaves are medicinally shown to help lower cholesterol levels and are high in Vitamins A and C. Violets are often recommended for bronchitis and whooping cough, chronically swollen lymph nodes, and even treatment of cancer. Topically, violets are used as a poultice, compress, infused oil, and salve in the treatment of dry skin, abrasions, insect bites, eczema, varicose veins, and hemorrhoids. It is a cooling, soothing, and anti-inflammatory plant.
Interestingly enough, violets have a unique chemical makeup that dulls the human sense of smell. You will smell the flower briefly, then the smell will disappear. If you wait a few moments and take another whiff, you will smell the flower again.
Hidden Blossoms: Violets have secret underground flowers. These flowers are called cleistogamous flowers. They never see the light of day, spending their entire life under the soil, but will still go to seed. Because they are hidden, these flowers have no color to them—they are simply white. They also never open. If you were to peel one open, you would find many little seeds inside. Since violets are viewed as a ‘weed’ and are often killed or pulled out of yards, having these hidden blooms helps ensure the survival of the plant. Simply put, the hidden blossoms self-pollinate and drop seeds underground, growing additional violets around the original plant. This is why they seem to pop up wherever they like, even though there appears to be no above-ground connection. If you are trying to dig them out of your yard (I don’t know why you would, but if you are) be sure to get the entire plant, including these underground flowers. Otherwise, your work will be for naught.
In light of the pandemic going on in the world today, I find hope in these strong, delicate plants.
If violets can have a ‘plan B’, staying strong in the midst of uncontrollable destruction and surviving annihilation with weedkillers to bloom again, so can we. I hope these little gems of the lawn may inspire a smile and renew your hope in the future.
Our spring blooms may have been stilted by disease and unforeseen events. We might have to go underground for a little while and practice social distancing from the world around us. However, I have an unwavering hope that we will bloom again this fall!