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Monday, April 20, 2015

Violets, Johnny-jump-up, Pansy, our Heart's Ease

Violets in full bloom by late April (zone 6)

 The appearance of springtime wildflowers can be like getting reacquainted with old friends. Feeling a connection with the land as the transformation of winter into spring unfolds before us has to be one of the most therapeutic remedies for a winter weary soul.

The history behind the origins of flower names can be an interesting lesson in history, literature and even mythology. Our modern day pansy is a descendant of the tricolored violet, or Johnny-jump-up. The word pansy comes from the French penser, which means "to think". The gardener to Lord Gambier, the Admiral of the Baltic fleet. was the one who crossed varieties of violets and developed the first blotched pansy in 1810. Huge quantities of violets were grown for perfume on the French Riviera. By 1893, two German scientists, Tiemann and Kruger discovered the chemical formula of the violet scent and called it Ionone.

Io was the young damsel whom Zeus loved but changed into a heifer to protect her from his jealous wife, Hera. Zeus gave Io a field of violets to eat. Her perfection raised the suspicions of Hera, who then tormented Io to the point she jumped into the Ionian Sea, which took her name as well. Zeus promised Hera he would no longer look at Io and turned her back into a girl. From that point on, violets were linked with love.

Elizabethans associated them with innocent, unspoiled love and so called them "heart's-ease". They're also called "love in idleness". Violet flowers aren't real flowers in the sense that real flowers go to seed. These flowers are just for fun and the real ones that do make seed come in autumn. They aren't the familiar purple, white or yellow, but rather are green and hidden in the mass of the foliage.

Violets can be recognized by their shiny green heart-shaped leaves with edges that roll in. The flowers have five petals and resemble little orchids. Good patches can be found where the ground remains damp and cool but with lots of sunlight. A tell-tale factor is the slimy, stickiness of the leaves. Violet leaf (Viola odorata) is what they call demulcent. This means they contain significant amounts of mucilage. This mucilage is what makes the violets medicinal and healing. It soothes and cools the skin while reducing inflammation and redness.

The parts used are the leaves and flowers. The fresh leaves themselves or an infusion in tea form has a bland but slightly sweet taste. Though labor intensive, picking the flowers can be a treat and since these flowers aren't the ones that produce seed there needn't be the worry of over-harvesting. Sit there and eat as you pick or perhaps save them for making candied violets.Violets are high in ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and vitamin A.

Fresh leaves have a high salicylic acid content, which make them valuable for treating some cancers. According to herbalist Susan Weed, the violet can be a powerful ally for reproductive problems such as an aid in dissolving cysts and tumors. The infused oil makes a soothing massage oil for breast inflammation.

Violets can be utilized as a tea, made into a syrup, a tincture, an herbal vinegar and put up in olive oil to be made into a salve. Being antiseptic, violet salve brings soothing relief for blisters, diaper rash, wound care, chapped dry skin, etc.

Viola is considered a very old-fashioned name and now we know why.
Plantain Violet Lip Balm

Herbal Infused Oil, Shea Butter Balm

  The following recipe for Candied Violets comes from Taste of Home magazine Feb/March 1993 issue


2 egg whites
1 large bunch wild violets (including stems), washed


  1. In a bowl, beat egg whites with a wire whisk just until frothy. Place sugar in another bowl. Taking one violet at a time, pick it up by the stem and dip into egg whites, covering all surfaces. Gently dip into the sugar, again being sure all of the petals, top and bottom, are covered. Place on waxed paper-lined baking sheets; snip off stems. Using a toothpick, open petals to original shape. Sprinkle sugar on any uncoated areas. Dry in a 200° oven for 30-40 minutes or until sugar crystallizes. Gently remove violets to wire racks with a spatula or two-tined fork. Sprinkle again with sugar if violets appear syrupy. Cool. Store in airtight containers with waxed paper between layers. Yield: 12 servings.
  Be sure to use the common wild purple violet, not the African violet (often grown as a houseplant).