“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows”
- From Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene1
Violets are said to have been one of Shakespeare's favorite flowers, but they sure fell out of favor over the years. Today, the Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) is a remarkably underappreciated native groundcover! Scorned by lawn-lovers as weedy, it thrives in semi-shady areas with rich soil if left alone, and acts as green mulch when permitted to roam and fill open spaces. And to top it off, Common Blue Violet is edible and has medicinal value.
Common Blue Violet can take lots of abuse (from dogs, in particular), does not seem to appeal to deer, and plays well with other groundlayers such as Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium augustifolium) and Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea). It is easy to grow and fills in empty spaces without a single complaint.
Common Blue Violet is easy to identify when it is blooming, but it can be confused with other plants if its flowers are not present. It has a basal rosette of toothed, heart shaped leaves, and drooping flowers with five petals. It usually blooms in late March and early April in our region. The flowers are typically blue or violet, but sometimes white with violet. In addition to being one of the first native perennials to bloom, the Common Blue Violet is the host plant for a wide range of butterflies known as fritillaries, including the Great Spangled Fritillary and the Variegated Fritillary.
As if that’s not enough, the flowers and leaves of the Common Blue Violet are edible. Be sure you have correctly identified Common Blue Violet (by its flowers) before harvesting, though, because some look-alikes with heart shaped leaves, like Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea), are not edible. Also, some recommend only harvesting blue flowers. Common Blue Violets are easy to harvest with a sharp pair of scissors and a knee pad. If harvested in early spring for the tender leaves and flowers, Common Blue Violet will bounce back and continue to grow through the summer for successional harvesting. Be careful of nearby hungry dogs, though, as they love to eat the flowers if they come across them on the ground in a bowl!
The leaves and blossoms of the Common Blue Violet can be eaten raw or cooked, and are reportedly high in vitamins C and A. They are best when young and tender and particularly good in a fresh salad. The blossoms are also used to decorate baked goods, or used to make candy or violet sugar.
And, of course, Common Blue Violet long been valued for its medicinal benefits (see http://naeb.brit.org/). The raw leaves are moist and cooling and can be used externally to ease inflammation and soothe skin irritations. As a tea, Common Blue Violet is used to treat colds and coughs and to support restful sleep when taken alone or added to a nighttime sleep tea blend.
Common Blue Violet tea can be prepared with fresh or dried leaves and flowers. To make fresh violet tea, simply place a tablespoon or two of fresh, clean Common Blue Violet leaves and (blue) flowers in your tea cup. Cover with boiling water and allow to steep for about 10 minutes. The flowers have a delicate scent and will turn the water slightly blue. Strain the flowers and tea before consuming, and add sweetener if desired. The tea has a wonderful fresh, florid scent and taste.
To make dried violet tea, dry the leaves and flowers (I use a dehydrator), and once completely dry, store them in a glass mason jar and use a teaspoon for each cup of tea or add to other dried herbs for a restful tea blend.
The dried violet tea leaves can last much longer than fresh leaves and are more concentrated, so only a teaspoon is needed for a large cup. Note the delightful blue tint and imagine the fragrance. Enjoy!
There are many more ways to enjoy Common Blue Violets! Before treating Common Blue Violet as a weed to be removed, try leaving them for the butterflies and enjoying their many benefits!