Sweet Violet – Edible, Medicinal, Beautiful

Sweet Violet - Edible, Medicinal, Beautiful

A 3-4 minute read

There is a little plant I've been on the look-out for, and I'm delighted to have finally found her. 

Please allow me to introduce you to Sweet Violet (Viola odorata), a delicate, beautiful little ground-covering plant with a super-long list of nutritive, medicinal, and sense-pleasing attributes.

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Sweet violet, Viola odorata 

Violets are cultivated extensively throughout the world.

The plant I'm referring to here is Viola odorata, commonly called Sweet Violet. There are many different species of Viola, all in the Violaceae family. One that can be used interchangeably with Viola odorata is Viola tricolor (its flowers have three colors) whose common names include Heartsease and Johnny Jump-Up. 

(Please note that I'm not talking about African Violets, which are a different species and family altogether and as far as I know are absolutely NOT edible. Read about the differences here and here.)


Appearance

Sweet violet is described by Herb Cottage as a small, herbaceous perennial which may reach a height of 10-12cm and spread 12-60 cm. By "spread of 12 to 60cm," I assume they mean per plant, but sweet violet could spread out indefinitely as a ground cover, as new plants establish themselves from creeping runners around the mother plant.

I'd describe the dark green leaves as round with something like a "v" shape where the stem joins the leaf, but they're often described as heart-shaped. (See pictures in this article and in the articles I've linked to below.)

The leaves have a slightly downy texture, especially on the undersides.

The aromatic flowers have 5 petals and a little spur at the back of the flower. The flower colors vary with different violet species, but sweet violet, Viola odorata, has purple flowers.


History and uses

Sweet violet has a long, rich, and varied history of use as food and medicine, in potpourris, sachets, and perfumes, and in confectionery and sweets.

Medicinally, violet flowers can be made into herbal syrups to soothe sore throats and coughs.

Older herbals discuss the use of violets to support lymphatic, respiratory, nervous and immune system health.

Violets have been used to help calm people, help people sleep better, and to address headaches.

Fresh leaves have historically been incorporated into cancer treatments, and modern research also points to the usefulness of violet leaves in the treatment of cancer.

Poultices of fresh violet leaves can be used to soothe and heal wounds, sores, and inflamed skin conditions. (The simplest way to make a fresh leaf poultice is to chew the leaves and apply the resulting paste directly to the wound. That might not sound very hygienic, but I can tell you from personal experience that it's very effective.)

Boils and burns can be soothed with crushed fresh violet leaves mixed with honey.

Nutritionally, violet leaves are rich in vitamins C and A and a variety of minerals, and they support the digestive system to enable you to extract more nourishment from all your other food too.

The leaves can be added to the salad bowl, incorporated into soups, included in pestos, and used any other way you can think of, including snacking on them in the garden. I find when I chew one that I feel as if I'm eating something more substantial than just a leaf. Maybe that's the super nutrition they offer, or maybe it's just the slightly mucilaginous texture giving it some "body" when I chew it.

The flowers can be added to salads or eaten as is.

When I have enough flowers, I'd like to try steeping them in vinegar for a sweet smelling and brilliantly tinted vinegar to add to my veggies and salad dressings. 

I'm also interested to try preserving the flowers in honey to use for coughs, colds, and sore throats. 


Cautions

Some texts I read said that it's safe to eat violet leaves and flowers freely. Others mentioned that in large quantities they can upset the stomach for some people, particularly if you’re sensitive/allergic to aspirin.

So, I’d suggest that you start slowly with the leaves and flowers, and pay attention.

Violet roots can be used medicinally, but don't eat them. I read that both the roots and seeds can cause nausea and vomiting if eaten in large quantities.


Growing sweet violet

I’ve only just brought my very first violet plants home so I can’t speak from experience yet, but I’m excited to add them to the understory in shady areas and see how they like it.

Violets require shade to spread as a ground cover, but require sunlight to flower abundantly. Ideal growing conditions are shady, cool, and moist, with direct early morning and/or late afternoon sunshine.

And if you live somewhere hot and dry, take heart: I’ve read of people in quite dry, hot areas keeping sweet violet going just fine so long as it is shaded through the heat of the day and gets a regular watering.

Violets spread through underground rhizomes and creeping runners, so they would be easy to propagate by division. They can also be grown from seed.


References 

Susun Weed's book  Healing Wise dedicates an entire chapter to Violet. Isabell Shipard's Australian book How Can I Use Herbs in My Daily Life? has a section on Sweet Violet. And I'm sure that many other herbal books would have information on the Violet family.

Finally, here are some articles I found useful: 

Sweet Violets: An Herbal Monograph

Sweet Violet at HerbCottage.com.au

Sweet Sweet Violet - Medicinal and Edible Uses of Violets 

Plant Portrait - Viola odorata Sweet Violet 

Please leave a comment...

Do you have Sweet Violet in your garden? Have you found it easy to care for? How do you use it?

  • Melita says:

    My family have passed this violet on for generations and planted it in the gardens of each home we’ve lived in. To me, this is ‘Grandma’s Violet’. When my boys were little, we would carefully part the leaves in search of tiny, purple violets which we would then pick and display in a small, delicate vase given to me for this exact purpose by my own grandma. They would then push them right up to their little noses trying to breathe in the perfume, just as my sister and I had done when we picked them with our Mum. It wasn’t until I read this article Kate, that I ever even suspected that the violet was edible. Thank you!

    • Kate says:

      What a beautiful story, Melita — thank you for sharing! And now you can add another layer of meaning and nourishment to this wonderful family heritage.

      • Melita Read says:

        I should have also added above, it can be grown in full sun. I spoke to my Mum about your article and she said that I should tell you that it’s the only violet she knows of (and she’s a wealth of gardening wisdom so I’d say there’s a very good chance she’s right) that will tolerate full sun

        • Kate says:

          Thank you! I’ll spread some around into sunny areas too, and see what happens. xx

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