Sweet Violet - Edible, Medicinal, Beautiful
3-4 minute reading time | Published Nov 2020, updated Nov 2023
Allow me to introduce you to sweet violet or wild violet (Viola odorata), a beautiful little shade-tolerant, ground-covering plant with a long list of nutritive and medicinal uses.
Sweet violet is one of many low-maintenance perennial plants that can be used as deeply nutritious food and simple, safe medicine. (And here are 7 more.)
I wrote this post about sweet violet when I first brought it into our garden a few years go. I've now updated it with more images, more links, and two super-simple recipes.
Sweet violet, wild violet, Viola odorata
Sweet violet is one of the common names for this plant; another is wild violet. Its scientific name is Viola odorata.
Violoa refers to the genus (a genus is a group of species that are closely related) and odorata refers to the species.
There are many different species in the Viola genus. 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 despite the confusing common name is an entirely different genus and are absolutely NOT edible. Read about that one and see some pics of it, here and here.)
Identifying sweet violet
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 on the violet plants I have (see picture above and at the top of this post), as round with something like a "v" shape where the stem joins the leaf. They're also sometimes more heart-shaped -- see the picture below.
The leaves have a slightly downy texture, especially on the undersides.
The flowers have 5 petals and a little spur at the back of the flower. The flower colors vary with different violet species; sweet violet, Viola odorata, has flowers in shades and hues of purple which range from faint to intense.
Here's a useful guide on foraging for and identifying violet (it also has a bunch of recipes).
Lots of violets!
Botanist and Herbalist Juliet Blankespoor says of the Violas:
"The sweet violet (Viola odorata) is the [main] medicinal and culinary species used... But the Viola genus contains around 550 species and many of them are used similarly to sweet violet. [Most] wild foods writers say that the blue and white flowered species of violet are all edible, but not the yellow flowered ones."
She goes on to say that "the leaves of some of the wild violets have an unpleasant soapy flavor, which leaves a funny feeling at the back of my throat; this is most likely from high levels of saponins. I avoid these plants, and instead go for the milder tasting ones."
History and uses
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, eaten as is, or infused in vinegar or honey.
Recipes for violet flower vinegar and honey
To make violet flower vinegar: fill a jar of any size with violet flowers, freshly picked. Cover it with vinegar. (Herbalist Susun Weed says to use any type of vinegar other than white. My preference is raw apple cider vinegar).
Use a jar with a plastic lid or place a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper under the lid to prevent it from rusting. Set your jar on a shelf out of direct sunlight for 4 to 6 weeks. Viola! Now you have a beautiful, nutritious, medicinal vinegar to use freely the same ways you would use any vinegar.
To make a violet flower honey is just as simple. Same directions, but use honey instead of vinegar and it doesn't need to sit as long before you use it. I wrote detailed directions on making a herbal honey, here, including tips on how long to sit it on the shelf before refrigerating. That was about making ginger honey, but the principles are exactly the same for violet flowers.
Violets have a long list of medicinal uses if you go digging for them. I did, and I've shared the references I found, below.
Here are some of the medicinal uses I found interesting:
- 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 agrees about 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's officially called a "spit poultice," and although it might not sound very hygienic 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.
Learn about 7 easy, nutritious food plants that you can harvest from for years without replanting
Growing and processing your own food is a huge task. In One Small Serve, I show you a smaller, simpler approach to fit into a busy life. Establish a "one-serve-at-a-time" home-grown food habit you can maintain.
Sweet violet cautions
Some texts I read said that it's safe to eat violet leaves and flowers freely. Others mentioned that in large quantities they may upset the stomach for some people, particularly if you’re sensitive/allergic to aspirin. And still others said that some varieties of violets may upset the stomach while others will not.
So, I’d suggest that first be sure that what you have is a Viola, and second, start slowly with the leaves and flowers, and pay attention to your body's response.
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
Violets spread as a ground cover in shady areas, but need sunlight to flower abundantly. Ideal growing conditions are dappled shade though the heat of the day, with direct early morning and/or late afternoon sunshine. Adjust that, of course, based on your own climate.
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. And a reader commented (see comments, below) that her family has grown sweet violet in full sun for several generations.
Violets spread through underground rhizomes and creeping runners, so they would be easy to propagate by division. They can also be grown from seed.
Sweet violet is one of 7 easy to find and easy to use herbs that Susun Weed dedicates an entire chapter to in her book Healing Wise.
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 (most? maybe all??) other herbal books would have information on the Viola family.
And here are some articles I found useful:
Learn how to grow and use 7 food plants that are
- easy and very low-maintenance
- productive for two or more years without replanting
- deeply nutritious
Growing and processing your own food is a huge task. In One Small Serve, I show you a smaller, simpler approach. Establish a "one-serve-at-a-time" home-grown food habit you can maintain.
Includes a series of free extra tips + free email support