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If you’re a devotee of broad, manicured lawns, you’re probably not a fan of wild violets. Joyfully living up to their moniker (“Johnny-jump-ups”) the multicolored blossoms of Viola tricolor erupt with utter abandon in driveways, meadows, pastures, and waste areas from early spring until late fall. And they’re more than happy to punctuate – if not overrun – that close-cropped expanse of turf you toil over every summer weekend.

But violets are more than just troublesome weeds. Of the 400 to 500 species of Viola scattered across the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, most have benefited mankind in one way or another. (If you’ve ever tucked a flat of domesticated pansies into a flowerbed, you’ve rubbed knuckles with violets, so you’ve at least profited from their cheerful appearance.)

Violets are good food. Their steamed leaves and flower buds, rich in beta-carotene, make an excellent potherb. When added to soups, violet blossoms act as a thickening agent, much like okra (but with less slimy results, in my opinion). Violet-leaf tea is soothing and calming. When used as a salad garnish, violet blossoms add a touch of whimsy as well as nutrition.

Violets have a long and respected history as medicinals. One common name for wild violets, “heartsease,” alludes to the herb’s reputation for decreasing blood pressure and alleviating cardiac congestion (there’s also the more romantic slant: an infusion of wild violets will ease a broken heart). Viola species have been touted for epilepsy, asthma, headaches, skin problems (including psoriasis, cradle cap, and acne), sore throats, fever, and coughs. Their anti-inflammatory and diuretic properties make violets useful for relieving arthritis, cystitis, and kidney stones, and their flavonoids help support blood vessels. The roots of violets are laxative and emetic (should you ever need either of those services). More than one tome has extolled violets as helpful for, or even curative of, cancer. In his books, The Way of Herbs and Treating Cancer with Herbs, an Integrative Approach, Dr. Michael Tierra reports that violet infusions and poultices, when taken internally or applied externally, help soften and disperse tumors of the breast, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract.

As usual, a nod to the phytochemists helps round out this essay on medicinal herbs. The salubrious constituents of violets include mucilage, salicylates, aglycones, cytotoxic cyclotides (hence their antitumor activity), rutin, quercitin, kaempferol, apigenin, and carotenoids, to name a few.

So, the next time you feel compelled to launch a scorched-earth crusade against those diminutive purple-and-yellow-faced weeds in your lawn, sit down, kick off your shoes and socks, thread a few violets through your hair, turn your own face toward the sun, and let the lawn go.


  1. The Way of Herbs. Michael Tierra, L.Ac., O.M.D. Pocket Books, 1998
  2. Treating Cancer with Herbs, an Integrative Approach. Michael Tierra, L.Ac., N.D. Lotus Press, 2003
  3. The New Age Herbalist. Richard Mabey. Simon & Schuster, 1988
  4. Indian Herbalogy of North America. Alma R. Hutchens. Shambhala Publications, 1973

All images copyright 2012, Stephe

Scientists say that odors are potent memory cues, and I’m inclined to agree. Whenever I smell wild roses, I am transported to a place of chirring cicadas, laughing waters, and lurking trout…

Years ago, the banks of my favorite fly-fishing streams were festooned with rambling tangles of wood rose whose heady aroma enveloped me as I roll-casted toward the shadowy places where fish lived (or so I hoped). Even if the trout weren’t rising, I could linger for hours, hip deep in the roiling torrent, and inhale that ethereal fragrance.

I haven’t visited any of those watercourses for nearly three decades, except in my mind – and wild roses are my conduit.      

Roses, whether wild or domesticated, are among the most popular flowers on the planet. After all, what would Valentine’s Day be (or first dates, or weddings, or golden anniversaries) without roses? What landscaper hasn’t draped an arbor or graced a sunny bed with a rose? Roses have secured an immutable foothold in the hearts of romantics and gardeners alike (I do recognize the redundancy in that statement), but a lot of rose-lovers aren’t aware that their beloved plants have uses beyond the amorous and ornamental.

At one time or another, probably all of the world’s 100 or so species of roses have been used medicinally. In America, the Costanoan Indians employed the hips of Rosa californica for treating colds, sore throats, fever, indigestion, rheumatism, and kidney problems. Members of the Okanagan-Colville tribe drank rose tea when taking sweat baths. Various other Western tribes used rose flowers and hips to reduce pain, relieve “clogged stomach,” make body and hair washes, and subdue childhood fevers.

Rose-leaf poultices are suitable for bites, stings, skin ulcers, rashes, and puffy eyes; an infusion of rose stems makes an excellent spring tonic. (By the way, the roots of roses possess many of the same salutary properties as the stems, flowers, leaves, and hips, but I avoid digging up the roots of an herb unless that’s the place where the medicinal constituents are; once the roots are gone, so is the plant.) Rose hips have served as a rich source of vitamin C since time immemorial, but they’ve been commercially exploited for this purpose since the mid-20th century. And, since rose hips cling to their parent plants throughout the winter, they provide good forage for birds and other wildlife – as well as an occasional misplaced hunter or fisherman.

Although most of the herbal lore associated with roses is derived from wild varieties, garden roses, too, are endowed with medicinal properties. Rosa gallica, a domesticated European red rose, is used as a nerve and heart tonic, and it is helpful for treating sore throats, earaches, headaches, uterine cramps, and mouth ulcers.

So, the next time you have swollen eyelids, a cold, or a few body aches – or if you’re just overworked and a bit stressed – brew up a cup of rose petal tea, ladle in a teaspoon of honey...

…and I’ll meet you on the river’s verge.


  1. A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Steven Foster, Christopher Hobbs. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2002
  2. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Michael Moore. Red Crane Books. 1993
  3. Edible and Useful Plants of California (California Natural History Guides). Berkeley. Charlotte Clarke. University of California Press. 1977
Images copyright Stephen A. Christensen, MD