Medicinal and Culinary Uses for the Shy Violet

While violets’ delicate blossoms are a treat only for the observant, the plant has enjoyed a long history of medicinal and culinary use.

Photo by Adobe Stock/predrag.

Leigh Hunt, an English Romantic essayist and poet, is the first known author of the phrase “shrinking violet.” In 1820, he published a passage describing a bit of woodland in The Indicator, a poetry magazine: “There was the buttercup, struggling from a white to a dirty yellow; and a faint-colored poppy; and here and there by the thorny underwood a shrinking violet.”

Hunt was almost certainly referring to the native English, or sweet, violet (Viola odorata). This shy plant can often go unremarked underfoot, and it carries its small, slightly recurved flowers level with or just below its leaves. The phrase “shrinking violet” took a few decades to catch on — but when it did, it spread rapidly, much as its parent plant does in the garden. You may have explained someone’s quiet strength or spunky attitude by claiming that they were “no shrinking violet.” Though the cliché was inspired by the sweet violet, there are a number of native North American violets from different regions. All share a low growth habit and delicate flowers.

Picking Posies

My first memories of this plant begin in my old childhood apple orchard. That side of the yard was a bit more moist, and slightly shady — perfect conditions for violets. In spring, and again in fall, I learned to look for the heart-shaped leaves that are the telltale sign of a patch of violets.

Violets are best seen when you lie on your belly for a closer look. They’re small, growing only 4 to 6 inches tall, and they beg you to take a moment and commune with them. In Hunt’s day, people took more time to pause and see the poetry in a diminutive flower. Today, we’re more apt to see just another weed interrupting an otherwise perfectly green lawn.

The plant’s heart-shaped leaves can be smooth or hairy. Wild varieties typically flower white or in shades of purple, but the influence of cultivated violets has brought purple-streaked white flowers and various shades of yellow to their repertoire. I’ve always thought violets have a sort of cartoon-mouse-like appearance in the way they carry their petals. Violets have five petals, arranged bilaterally with two above and three below. To me, the top two seem to suggest large ears! The three petals on the bottom are put together like a landing strip for pollinators. In fact, the large, center landing strip petal is striped with ultraviolet pigments to flag down winged pollinators. Bees are common violet visitors, the blue orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria) chief among them.



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