Sweet Violets…

On this beautiful May Day, Mother Nature has adorned our yard in flowers: tall fragrant lilacs, a bright purple azalea under burgeoning soft pink cherry blossoms, and pale yellow rhododendrons. Our house is surrounded by oak and fir trees which create a microclimate that always has our plants “behind” those of our neighbors by about two weeks. Turns out both the yard and I are late bloomers!

As I was strolling around the yard admiring Mama’s finery, I came upon a new clump of violets hidden in the grass. Violets have a special place in my heart – and in my family’s as well. My mom currently has two pets named Violet. (She named her fish Violet first and then she adopted a Russian blue cat named Violet, so it isn’t like George Foreman who named all five of his sons George.) My dad, a closet crooner, used to walk around the house singing “Sweet Violets”:

There once was a farmer who took a young miss
Aside of the barn where he gave her a…
Lecture on horses and chickens and eggs
Then told her she had such beautiful…
Manners that suited a girl of her charms
One that he wanted to take in his…
Washing and ironing and then if she did
They would get married and have lots of…

Sweet violets, sweeter than the roses
Covered all over from head to toe
Covered all over with sweet violets.

He would sing the song and pause so we could shout out the missing rhyming word. A couple of years ago, I shared this story with a friend who promptly looked up the song on the Internet. Apparently, the song was issued in the early ’50s and Dad just sang the first verse. You can hear the, um, quaint full version here. It seems likely that this song is an updated version of the one by the Sons of the Pioneers that came out in 1936 – the year my dad was born. When I first heard that version, I laughed out loud. There’s no way my sister and I could have filled in THOSE lyrics!)

viola odorata
Viola odorata – English Violet; by Susan Polan of The American Violet Society

I grew to appreciate the violet-as-healing-herb during my ethnobotany apprenticeship. One sunny morning, my teacher brought in a tea made from the fresh leaves and flowers of violets blooming in her yard. It was delicately floral and thoroughly pleasant. Violet flowers and leaves are very high in Vitamin C (some say higher than any other plant!) and also high in Vitamin A. They are cooling and mucilaginous (kind of sticky/gooey) which make them a good ally for the cold and flu season. Flowers can be used in a syrup to soothe an irritated and hot throat and for dry coughs. It is also a lymphagogue that can lessen congestion and help swollen lymph glands.

Violet is most famously used to dissolve cysts and lumps for cancers of the breast, lung, skin, and lymphatic system. Poultices can be used for “hot” skin conditions like abscesses, acne or sores. Poultices also can be used to ease arthritic conditions.

Another name for violet is “heart’s ease.” It has been used for thousands of years to treat both physical and emotional conditions of the heart such as grief. It is high in rutin which strengthens capillaries and is anti-inflammatory. Rutin also is effective for varicose veins.

Violet leaves and flowers can be eaten fresh. Both are good in salads (make sure you’re using fresh, tender leaves). I used to feel bad about harvesting the flowers, but the flowers in the spring are not used in plant reproduction. Violets flower again in autumn (those flowers are very hard to spot), and those are the ones that produce seeds. Why two sets of flowers? I heard that the violets flower in spring for the sheer exuberance of it. So harvest the flowers with joy and abandon!

The small clump in my yard sprung up from one of several violet transplants from a generous neighbor. While on a walk we had passed a house that had been for sale for months and had finally sold. Close to the road and running nearly the length of the property was an old flower bed with hundreds of violets. I was walking with my head down, staring covetously at the violets and wondering out loud if I could come back and ask the new owners if I could have a few plants for our yard. “Or maybe,” I joked (kind of), “I could just come back under cover of darkness and take some.” I looked up to see the new owner, shovel in hand, working in the flower bed. Oops. I followed quickly with, “I was just openly coveting your violets!”

We ended up walking home twenty minutes later with a bucket of violets to transplant to our yard. Moral of the story: Ask and ye shall receive. But have a backup plan just in case. And if you still don’t get what you want, use some violet flowers to ease your disappointed heart.

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