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.
- The Way of Herbs. Michael Tierra, L.Ac., O.M.D. Pocket Books, 1998
- Treating Cancer with Herbs, an Integrative Approach. Michael Tierra, L.Ac., N.D. Lotus Press, 2003
- The New Age Herbalist. Richard Mabey. Simon & Schuster, 1988
- Indian Herbalogy of North America. Alma R. Hutchens. Shambhala Publications, 1973
All images copyright 2012, Stephe