This week I thought I would spend some time on violets. They are flowering in my garden at the moment - just outside the kitchen window.
This year, for the first time, my violet clump has grown enough for me to be able to pick enough violets to fill my vase! They are so pretty and smell heavenly! When I was a little girl (!) there was a patch of violets hidden away in the depths of our old, overgrown garden, and I must admit I am completely sentimental about violets. I suspect I'm not the only one!
Viola odorata, or Sweet Violet is a hardy perennial with heart shaped leaves and sweet smelling flowers which rise on long stalks from late winter to early spring. The sweet smell of the flowers have made it a favourite throughout the centuries. It is said that Viola oderata was one of the first plants to be grown commercially - they were for sale in Athens in 400BC! The Greeks were so fond of violets that they made the violet the symbol of Athens. The violet was also the flower of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and of her son Priapus, the god of gardens. It was Josephine Bonaparte's favourite flower and Napoleon picked a bouquet of violets for her grave before being exiled to Elba.
The Victorians were particularly fond of the violet - to them, it was the symbol of faithfulness and fidelity. A lady of quality would often go out wearing a bunch of violets, and they were so popular for making perfume that huge areas were planted in violets in the late 1800s.
To top all of this off, the flowers of sweet violets are edible and make the most beautiful additions to salads or can be sugared and used to decorate cakes.
Sweet violet has also been used traditionally to treat a range of respiratory disorders such as coughs and head colds (and hangovers apparently!). During the Middle Ages, violets were grown in the monastery gardens and monks would use them to make liqueurs and meads as a treatment for coughs, colds and flu.
Violet seed is a cold germinator and requires chilling to break its dormancy, if sowing in Spring. Alternatively, you can sow your Viola oderata seed in autumn, allowing it to winter over naturally for spring germination. Viola oderata thrive in a semi-shaded position and once established, quickly create a carpet of lovely, sweet-smelling flowers.
If you are lucky enough to have a good supply of violets, you might like to try some of the recipes we have included below
Sugared violets make the prettiest decorations for cakes and cupcakes and are very easy to make. All you need is a supply of violets, egg white, caster sugar and a clean paintbrush.
Pick your violets, leaving a long stalk for ease of handling. Use the paintbrush to lightly coat both sides of the petals with egg white, then sprinkle with caster sugar. Snip the stalks off with scissors and leave the flowers to dry on baking paper.
When dry, store in an airtight container until you are ready to use them.
The following tea recipes are from Margaret Roberts book: "Tea, Recipes for Health, Wellbeing and Taste". The first recipe is said to be good for sinus congestion and is a useful recipe as it is made with the leaves of the violet plant, which are available year round:
Take 1/4 cup fresh violet leaves, and a few violet flowers if you can find them, 1/4 cup sage leaves, 1/4 cup bergamot leaves, 1/4 cup of tea tree sprigs and 2 teaspoons of aniseed and simmer together in 3 cups of water for 10 minutes. Cool and strain. Add a squeeze of lemon juice if you like. Sip 1/2 cup twice a day, warmed, to relieve sinus congestion.
To make a quick, simple and refreshing violet tea, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1/4 cup fresh violet flowers and leaves and leave for 5 minutes. Stir in a little honey if you like, strain and enjoy!
I found this very quaint, very old (1585!) recipe for a syrup made from violets (or roses) and thought you might enjoy the antiquated English. It is a bit hard to read through - so I have also included a modern recipe as well.
To Make A Syrup Of Roses Or Violets
Take of violets or roses a pound, steep them in three pints of warm water, put it in an earthen pot with a narrow mouth the space of seven hours or more. AFTER strained it and warm the water again and put in again so many Roses or Violets, and likewise let them lye in steep eight hours, and thus do at the least five times, the more often, the better, in especially the roses, and after take to every pint a pound of sugar and steep them together, till the sugar be molten, then seethe them together with a soft sweet fire to get height of a Syrup; if you have more Roses or Violets, or fewer and let so much be the proportion of the water, according to the proportions before. –The Good Housewife’s Handmaid 1585
Old Fashioned Violet Syrup
You will need six handfuls (about 85g or 3 ounces) of sweet violets, 300ml boiling water and 600g white sugar.
Remove all the green, stalks and leaves from the violets and put the flowers into a non-reactive heatproof bowl. Pour the boiling water over the flowers, cover with a lid and allow infusing for 24 hours, or overnight.
The next day, add the sugar to the water and violets. Bring a saucepan of water to a rolling boil, and place the bowl on top of the saucepan. Keep stirring the violet mixture until the sugar has completely dissolved.
Strain and pour into a sterilised jar or bottle. Label the violet syrup and keep it in a cool place (it can be kept in the fridge) for up to 6 months. This is a wonderful ingredient to add to icing or buttercream for cakes and it can be added to sparkling wine or lemonade for a lovely and very elegant drink. You could also try using it to make violet ice cream or jelly. One teaspoon of syrup is usually enough for most recipes. And imagine what a beautiful gift this would make for a like-minded friend - choose a pretty bottle and add a pretty label and some serving ideas.
Editor's note: Sorry but we are no longer able to supply Violet Queen Charlotte as we are unable to source this seed variety.
Sue says ...
Thanks for this lovely post Carolyn. I was wondering what to plant around my new shady sitting area... you've inspired me to plant violets. We too had a secret stash of them in the garden when we were kids -- beside the mint I think -- and I've always remembered the smell with a great deal of happiness.
Hannah Picton says ...
I want some violets to make a violet milk cleanser but they seem to be very hard to find ... Can you tell me where I can find violet seeds, plants, anything ... please ? I live in Auckland, NZ
Trish says ...
I have been told that Violets are a noxious weed is this correct
as I have never heard this ever and I am in my 60s
Monika says ...
I have been trying to sprout violet seeds, but not success so far. The seeds are fresh from Kings seeds. Read somewhere that keeping them in the fridge for few weeks might help. Still no results. Is there any secret to sprouting them?
zac says ...
sweet violets get some cuttings or the plant they can be grown by cutting the root in to segments
Jeanbee says ...
My violets have been growing profusely for about a year now.It's winter again but they have no flowers. Is there some type of fertiliser I should use?
David says ...
Where can you buy these plants? Im from Hamilton