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Violets are just about to bloom where I live. I love to see their pretty edible flowers along the shadier paths of local parks and gardens. I also love to see their purple blooms and heart-shaped leaves on my salad plate.
Despite the English idiom shrinking violet, there is nothing shy about this plant. As any gardener who has ever had to weed it out knows, violets self seed prolifically and have knobby roots that are a hassle to weed out. In other words, there really isn’t a sustainability issue with harvesting this pretty but tough little plant.
The violet that you’re most likely to encounter growing wild in much of North America is the Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia, V. papilionacea). It grows in partially shaded areas throughout our parks and in many backyards. All Viola species have edible leaves and flowers.
Although some Native American tribes used violet roots externally to relieve joint pain, taken internally they are a strong emetic (they’ll make you throw up). Not something you want to include in dinner! Stick to the leaves and flowers.
Wild violets produce two kinds of flowers. The showy ones that are so pretty on salads are usually purple with some white near the center, but sometimes they are mostly white. They are about 3/4-inch in diameter, grow on leafless stalks, and have 5 petals. The side petals have white hairs near their bases. Later in the summer the plants produce inconspicuous, self-pollinating, petal-less flowers that eventually become three parted capsules that eject the seeds.
You may notice that the violets you find blooming in North America don’t really have a smell. The English or Garden Violet, Viola odorata, is the fragrant one that is used to scent and flavor syrups, gums, candies, etc. As far as I know, it doesn't grow wild in the States.
Cultivated Viola species are one of the most common flowers included in those edible flower mixes you see at the farmers’ markets, and the wild ones have just as many uses. In addition to sprinkling them fresh on salads and using them as colorful garnishes, violets may be candied and made into syrup.
Heart-shaped violet leaves are a mild, tasty addition to salads. Unlike dandelion and other wild greens, violet leaves never get bitter. They grow in a rosette pattern, meaning all the leafstalks of each perennial plant emerge from the ground at one central point. There are small pointed teeth along the leaf margins.
There is another plant in that grows in similar habitats, and whose leaves look somewhat similar: garlic mustard. But garlic mustard smells like garlic, and violet leaves don’t really have a smell. The flowers are completely different. And once you get to know both plants you’ll notice that garlic mustard leaves have more yellow in their green, the teeth along the margins are rounder, and the veins are less pronounced on the underside of the leaf than violet’s.
Young violet leaves are partially curled up like a scroll. They unfurl their heart-shape as they get bigger. Fully open violet leaves can sometimes be a little stringy, especially later in summer. For salads, I like to use the tender, partly curled smaller leaves.
You can also cook violet leaves by steaming, boiling or stir-frying them, but keep in mind that when you do so they develop a mucilaginous texture. This is excellent for thickening soup, but otherwise I prefer the raw leaves.
In addition to the decorative candies and the flower syrup I mentioned, dried violet leaves make a mild tea that is good for coughs, congestion, and soothing sore throats. This is an excellent use for the older leaves that are too tough for salad.
To dry them, bundle the stem ends of 8 – 12 violet leaves and secure them with a rubber band. Hang them somewhere away from direct light or heat. They should be crispy dry in a week. Remove the rubber band and transfer the dried leaves to a covered glass jar.
Always be 100% certain of your plant identification before eating any wild plant.
Leda Meredith teaches foraging and food preservation skills internationally. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and find her food preservation recipes and tips. Her latest book is Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries.