I really love violets. I can’t remember ever seeing them growing wild when we lived in California, but as soon as I saw them here in the PNW, I knew I wanted them everywhere. I ordered more than a dozen seed packets and sprinkled them throughout my raised beds and waited impatiently for them to sprout. (Someday when we have our own little farm, I’m going to scatter their seeds everywhere.) When violets start blooming, I feel like spring is really on its way and the sun will be returning soon. Their heavenly scent is pure bliss, though fleeting – they only bloom for a short while. I played with them a lot last year, sharing recipes for a breast serum, a yummy herbal shrub, and a few other ideas for things you can make with their flowers and leaves.
I just saw the first violets peeking through the mulch the other day – not many yet, only a few – so I thought today would be a nice day to share more about this sweet little favorite of mine. Would you like to get to know her a little better too? (Note: this is not the same species as the African violets which are commonly grown as houseplants.)
This article is an excerpt from our Herbal Aromatherapy™ Certification Program, which will be opening for enrollment soon. Find more information about the program here.
There are over 500 species of Viola, the largest genus in the Violaceae family, growing worldwide. There are also many hybrids, which give us the garden pansies and violas that we often plant in the cool seasons, but the sweet violets are the ones we use most often for medicinal purposes – their botanical name is Viola odorata. Viola odorata is the specific species we’re studying throughout this article. There is also a species called Viola tricolor that can be used interchangeably – you probably know it as Johnny Jump-Up or Heartsease!
Most violets produce edible, heart-shaped leaves with aromatic purple flowers. Some species also produce white or yellow flowers (and some even produce double petaled flowers!), but they can vary in their edibility. The sweet violet that we’re learning about now has purple flowers with 5 petals – 2 that point upward and 3 that point down, with a sweet little spur at the back of the flower. The leaves can be a little bit downy, especially on their undersides, and they spread through underground rhizomes and creeping runners the plant sends out after flowering in the spring.
Violets can produce seeds twice a year – once after flowering in the spring (usually, but not always), and once in the fall or winter. If you look closely at your violet plants in late fall, you might see pale beige seed capsules standing amongst the foliage, opening to disperse when the seeds are ripe. Violets are self pollinating, so while pollinators love their sweet nectar, the plants can reproduce without insect pollination. Their seeds have nutrient-rich elaiasomes that ants like to carry back to their nests, thus spreading the seeds further than the plants could on their own.
Violets are perennial plants that only grow to a few inches tall. I often see them underplanted near larger trees in the woodland areas, happily spreading about and covering the forest floor. In the garden, they like to grow in healthy soil with little competition and with a bit of shade from the heat of the summer sun. You can grow sweet violets from seed, though they may not germinate the first year. They seem to do better after a period of natural stratification, so plant them in the fall so they can overwinter outdoors. You can also plant divisions or bare root rhizomes in the fall or early spring. Space them 6-12″ apart for best results. They spread quickly and if they’re too overcrowded, you might not get as many blooms.
Sweet violets are one of the first flowers to start blooming in the late winter to early spring. I’ve consistently seen them flowering here beginning in early February and they will usually bloom again when the temperatures start to cool in late October – early November.
Violet leaves can be harvested throughout the season when they are looking healthy and vibrant and the flowers are collected throughout the weeks when the plants are in bloom. Gather them swiftly because some insects like to eat them as much as we do!
If you can grow violets in your area, definitely plant some for your own personal use. Homegrown plant material is far superior in quality to any purchased violet leaf I’ve ever sourced.
Violets contain a group of constituents that are referred to as cyclotides. Cyclotides are interesting because, in studies, they have been shown to have antimicrobial activity and to show promise for their potential inclusion in cancer-related protocols. This area needs further study, but the current research looks promising.
Violets also contain ionone, which is the constituent responsible for the temporary immunity to scent that we notice when smelling violets. If you inhale the aroma of a violet, it almost seems to disappear after a moment and, to smell it again, you have to take a break and come back to it. The ionone in the violets binds to our scent receptors and temporarily shuts them off so we can’t smell the violets for a short time.
Violets also contain salicylates, which may be helpful for reducing pain levels in the body. Flavonoids and phenolic glycosides, along with a bit of soothing mucilage are also present.
Violet leaves are nutritious, containing both vitamin C and vitamin A and a variety of minerals, and are often incorporated into the diet in salads, sandwiches, and pestos alongside other leafy greens. They are similar in appearance to other heart-shaped leaves of different plants, so only harvest them from plants that are currently flowering so you can positively identify them until you’re confident in your plant identification skills and can be certain that you’re harvesting from the correct plant. The flowers are often candied to preserve them for use in cooking and baking. I like to infuse them in vinegar so I can capture their flavor in herbal shrubs, but one of my favorite ways to preserve their scent is in honey or sugar.
When you set out to prepare a violet flower syrup, the decoction is at first a bright, vibrant aquamarine blue, but when you add lemon juice to the syrup, it instantly changes to a vibrant purplish pink color, making it a fun addition to homemade lemonades, popsicles, and other colorful recipes.
Violet leaves are used internally and externally (in poultices, compresses, washes, infused oils, salves, lotions and creams, etc.) to improve the health of the skin. All kinds of skin issues, especially those that are manifesting with symptoms of dryness or heat (think acne, eczema, rashes, bites and stings, etc.), can benefit from a topical application. The leaves are cooling, moistening and soothing. You can use them to calm a sore throat by chewing them up for a bit before swallowing them or by applying them externally as a warm poultice.
The leaves are used topically to reduce swelling and inflammation, especially of the lymph nodes. A violet leaf poultice can be applied regularly to help encourage healthy lymphatic circulation and to help reduce the size of lumps and bumps associated with cysts and other growths that are living where they ought not. Leaf poultices are also incredibly useful for soothing wounds, scrapes, bruises, rashes, and all kinds of skin ailments, as well as inflammation and rheumatic aches and pains.
Violet leaf and flower, taken internally, help to stimulate lymphatic flow and aid the liver in purifying the blood (alterative quality), thus helping to improve the overall health of the body. The aroma of the flowers calms the nervous system and helps to prepare the mind and body for a restful night of sleep.
For the respiratory system, violet leaves and flowers can be used in teas, poultices, compresses, steams, and syrups to help calm coughs, especially dry or spastic coughing that isn’t very productive, and break up excess mucus so the body can more efficiently expectorate it.
When you’re feeling agitated or restless, violet can help calm you down and bring you back into your natural equilibrium. It’s cooling energetically and seems to instill a quiet contentment and a gentleness of heart with a generosity of spirit that is quite lovely. The flower essence can also be used this way, and to help someone who is shy around other people interact with kind assurance and confidence.
The aroma of violets is both uplifting and comforting. It instills a confidence that, even through the trials and struggles of life, there is still beauty and sweetness and reason to be joyful and content. In aromatherapy, the scent is elusive. The delicate plant is not steam distilled to gather its essential oil, but instead it is solvent extracted to produce a concrete and an absolute – usually a leaf absolute, which has a strong green smell and is often adulterated (be mindful where you choose to purchase). Flower-derived absolutes were once commonly produced for perfumery, but they are increasingly difficult to find now. However, CO2 extracts are becoming more popular, so it’s possible that we’ll see a return of this rare scent to the aromatherapy world in the near future. You can also infuse the scent into fat through enfleurage, repeating the process until you reach the strength of aroma that you’re after.
The leaf absolute can be included in skin care recipes and perfume formulations. In skin care, it is said to be calming for acne and other skin conditions and to help calm the nervous system and facilitate healthy lymphatic flow. Take care where you source it if you plan to use it topically – look for a certified organic proprietor because concretes and absolutes often come with harmful residues left over from the extraction process. Because the absolute is so expensive and the plant is so readily available and able to be used for these same purposes, I would recommend using the herb itself instead.
In terms of scientific studies, we’re seeing promise for violet’s use in improving sleep quality, improving headaches in those who suffer from migraines (when used in formula), and for slowing tumor growth and volume in mice.
Safety and Contraindications
Violet roots can be emetic (cause nausea and vomiting), especially in large doses, and are rarely used in traditional herbal therapies. The leaves and flowers are edible, but contain saponins that can upset the stomach for some people. It’s a good idea to try just a few flowers or leaves at first and see how your body responds before munching on them like candy (the flowers taste like candy and are used to make pastilles and candies, so it’s all too easy to eat a great many at once). If you’re sensitive/allergic to aspirin, there is a slight possibility that they may cause upset stomach for you.
Do violets grow where you live too? Have you ever used them?