Herb of the Month: Violet

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Herb Use: mild laxative; demulcent; expectorant; lymphagogue; diuretic; anti-inflammatory; antitumor.

Every month I will put the spotlight on a particular herb - and this month I am excited to introduce to you violet (Viola novae-angliae shown above). This low-lying purple flower has sprung this spring in many people's yards, often appearing in clusters, and blooming till about June.

I was first introduced to violet, not in New England, but in France when studying abroad, where they use an Old World variety called Viola odorata. The Viola odorata is so valued in Toulouse, France that every February there is a festival held in its honor. With this culinary variety, they sell candied violets, violet jelly, violet teas, violet honey and syrups, violet cakes and cookies, and other confectionaries - even delicate perfumes made with the flowers.

Historical Use of Violet

Herbalist Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) in her Physica wrote of violet salve to be applied around the eyes as an unguent to relieve eye pain and irritation (with a warning not to get into the eyes). Other preparations could be used to treat "fatigue from palsy," crabs, fevers, and aliments of the lungs.

The first recorded use of violet (variety not specified) in North America comes from an Icelandic manuscript in 1475 describing the plant's medicinal use - its cooling and moistening properties. Early settlers would apply crushed violets to burns, drink violet tea for indigestion and heartburn, prepare water mixed with myrrh and saffron to cool eyes that are "burning with heat," and oil infused with the flowers to soothe a dry cough.

"Many herbs in the spring time there are commonly dispersed throughout the woods, good for broths and sallets (salads), as Violets, Purslin, Sorrell &c." ~ Captain John Smith, 1612, Virginia.

The flowers to taste are very floral and a bit sweet, which is why the French favor them in desserts, and the leaves taste slightly nutty. The flowers and leaves can be eaten raw in a salad or the leaves can be sauteed and cooked in dishes. The roots can be used as a purgative medicine, and the seeds, leaves, and flowers have a mild laxative effect that is gentle enough to use on constipated children.

Robert Christison's 1842 recipe for violet syrup, from the dispensatory or commentary on the pharmacopoeias of Great Britian: "Take of fresh violet petals two pounds; boiling water five pints, infuse for twenty four hours; strain liquor through a fine cloth without expression; and then add 15 lbs of sugar to make a syrup" (p. 944).

A topical oil infused with violets (flower and leaf) makes for a great breast massage oil to soothe swollen, tender, and fibrocystic breasts and a poultice or salve made of violet can bring comfort to nursing mothers with cracked nipples. The use of violet oil also has a long-standing tradition of use to shrink breast cysts and growths, including cancer. For further reading, you can check out Susan Weed's book on Breast Cancer? Breast Health!

Other uses

Aromatherapy & essential oil preparations: violet leaf essential oil (Viola odorata) can be used in anti-aging skin preparations, especially suitable for aging skin that is oily and acne-prone. It can also be used on the skin to reduce edema, cellulite, bruising, and soreness. In perfumery, it blends well with bergamot, ho wood, jasmine, neroli, and rose otto.

Witchcraft: violet wreaths are worn around the head to promote a good night's sleep and banish insomnia; spring violates are collected and stored in medicine bundles with marjoram to ward off winter blues and sickness; placed on windowsills to protect the home, and used as a face wash to increase reception and perception in psychic work (probably because of the plant's affinity for the eyes). Check out Judika Illes's book of Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells for spell inspiration using violets.

Flower Remedy: violet flower remedy or essence is used to promote self-acceptance, and to overcome shyness in sensitive people. To soothe highly "perceptive people," and a fear of being unrecognized.

Note of safety: People with G6PD (glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase) deficiency should not use violet internally, as it may contribute to hemolytic anemia. Because it is also a mild laxative enjoy in moderation in culinary preparations. Do not forage from lawns that have been sprayed with pesticides, or from roadsides with contaminated soils and exposures.

Written by Ashley Bissonnette-Murphy, PhD, MPH, CHES, herbalist

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.