Weed or Wonder? The Lowly Violet? PDF Print E-mail
Appalachian Culture - Appalachian Culture
Written by Mary Spalding   
Sunday, 19 June 2011 22:29

“I would give you violets,” says Ophelia to her brother Laertes. “but they withered when my father died.”

As today is father’s day, this quotation of flower(and man)-mad Ophelia seemed an appropriate introduction to my violet essay.  I started this weeks ago when violets were still regularly blooming—but they continue blooming now and then through the summer and even more in the fall, so I don’t think the topic is untimely even without the Father’s Day link, but what a great excuse to pay tribute to my dad.  My father died twenty-six years ago, long before I thought much about violets or knew Hamlet very well—but Ophelia knew her flowers, so I’ll take her word for their withering upon her father’s death.  Actually, Shakespeare merely incorporated the symbolism that the flowers had accrued long before he penned those words.   violets

Despite that association, I welcome their heart-shaped leaves and pansy-like blooms each spring.  (Garden pansies began as Europe’s wild tri-colored violas (v. tricolor and v. lutea), commonly sold in the U.S. as “Johnny Jump-Ups,” before the hybridizers got a hold of them.) In my quest for a lawn needing mowing only once or twice a year, I have let the violets take over as much real estate as they can. 

Common violets (V. odorata), also known by other names such as wild sweet violet and heartease (and I always thought they were called "blue violets," though they are definitely purple), are native to Europe but now grow all over North America, as do about 75 other species, “most of them native” (Sanders).  Obviously, the aromatic flowers of the common variety are responsible for their scientific name.  “Viola” is perhaps a reference to Ion, the founder of Athens, whose city symbol was the violet.  “Ion” is similar to “Io,” the Greek Goddess who Zeus fell in love with and then turned into a white heifer who fed on sweet white violets (Sanders).  Even Greek Gods have to keep peace in the household, and Hera was not very happy about Io. 

The plant’s sweet perfection explains how it has become imbued with such qualities.  Why is it that I used to yank their heart-shaped leaves from my grass?  How did I believe their curves, color, and fragrance “ruined” the boring expanse of straight green blades?  The violets and I have come a long way since those days. 

Lawns are over-rated.  I’ve discussed this before in “Weed or Wonder?”  Violets are among the showiest examples of plants that might pop up if one does not blanket one’s yard in chemicals, ostensibly to keep out the undesirables.  What, after all, is undesirable about a violet?

Violets first pled their case one spring when I had the energy to rake dead winter leaves from a copse behind my house.  This small open woodland, surrounded by tall linden (basswood) and sugar maple, normally appeared as brown as those dead leaves, but that spring the cleared ground erupted in green and purple, an enchanting expanse of small leaves and flowers whose beauty has resulted in hothouse hybrids galore.  And these little amethyst gems appeared there, unbidden, formerly hidden beneath tree litter but now reaching for the filtered sunlight in all their purple glory.  As I’ve since learned, violets like cool, moist soil, and my place in the shadow of Savage Mountain fits the bill. 

Their next ambush on my sensibilities happened beneath the giant Norwegian spruce that dominates my front yard, a tree apparently planted by the family who first built the dilapidated cottage I call home, the tree a now majestic woodland soul and home of many birds.  Pine needles and long, flattish, decaying cones are apparently the perfect environment for the sweet white violet.  As pretty as the leaves and flowers of the common purple wood violets in the back yard are, these surpass both in delicate form and beauty.  Once I recognized this, I began saving myself the trouble of mowing around that big tree trunk.  I hand pick blades of grass that dare to mar these charming clusters.

I’m still waiting to see my first yellow violet—so if anyone knows where they grow, please clue me in!  I won’t pick them—I’d just like to see them growing in the wild.  I have seen the birds’ foot violet (V. pedata), a variation on the common violet rather subtle but wonderful once discovered—most evident in its foliage, which is feathery and fernlike, rather than round or heart-shaped.  A single one bloomed in a mowed field near the Savage River one summer a few years ago.  I left it there, hoping it would proliferate, but I haven’t checked the site lately.

And that’s it.  I’m ready for more species on my violet life list. 

Violets are pretty special weeds, and not just because they are pretty.  Both leaves and flowers are edible.  The mild-tasting leaves (also described in some sources as bitter) and even the blooms are great for salads, and the leaves will thicken soups.  The already sweet flowers have long been sugared and used to decorate cakes and confections.  If its culinary uses don’t convince you, dear reader, of its worth, perhaps its medicinal qualities will. 

According to Bonika.com, “Sweet violet has a long and proven history of folk use, especially in the treatment of cancer and whooping cough. It also contains sawhitevioletslicylic acid, which is used to make aspirin. It is therefore effective in the treatment of headaches, migraine and insomnia. The whole plant is anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, diuretic, emollient, expectorant, and laxative. It is taken internally in the treatment of bronchitis, respiratory catarrh, coughs, asthma, and cancer of the breast, lungs or digestive tract.  Externally, it is used to treat mouth and throat infections.”  Going back to the Greeks (and undoubtedly before), violets were used “to induce sleep, to strengthen the heart, and to calm anger”  (Sanders).  Its fragrance has been used in perfumes, cosmetics, and breath fresheners, and a pigment extracted from its flowers is used in tests for Ph (Botanika.com).  Now, call that a weed if you will, but I call that a wonder.   

Best of all, in my view (lest the end of the world is nigh, which will cause me to alter my priorities), these little plants can serve as a groundcover—an exciting use for me, given my determination to eventually replace my lawn with diminutive plants that keep out weeds I consider undesirable (and, yes, a few of those do exist).  True, common violets can grow a foot high when left undisturbed, but a quick mowing will soon cover the ground with new, little sprouts.  In most areas in my mostly woodland yard, the large heart-shaped leaves are an excellent garden companion to hostas, which cost much more than the zero I pay for violet volunteers. 

For a thorough discussion of the violet’s folklore, go to Jack Sanders’ The Secrets of Wildflowers on Google Books.  Better yet, as I’ve said before, buy the book, which I bought at Main Street Books in Frostburg some years ago.  It is full of lovely photos, as well as scientific and literary information, myth and folklore.  The flower is not only associated with death; it has also long been associated with purity and love. 

I recently read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, one of those books my English master’s degree education had missed, somehow, though I certainly heard plenty of references to it.  In the 1920 novel’s opening chapter, May Welland, New York socialite Newland Archer’s young, innocent fiancĂ©, holds a bouquet of white violets he’d given her for a night at the opera.  He sends her a bouquet each day until he finds his fancy addled by her married cousin’s scandalous arrival from France; one day, he forgets to send a bouquet to May, signaling the impending death of his attraction, slow that it is and, actually, only presumed.  Thus, in the same book, violets’ two prevalent emblems are employed. 

 As Sanders reports, Josephine Bonaparte carried a bouquet of violets at her wedding, and she grew a garden full of them, which, of course, became a European obsession afterwards.  Napoleon so loved the flower he became known as Caporal Violette.  I guess that gets us back to death again.

And, now, back to father’s day:  Thank you, Dad, for your integrity, dedication to your family, and brilliant mind.  I miss you every day, and I have no doubt that any violets daring to bloom on March 9, 1985, wilted the moment you stepped off the planet.


Photos are by Mary Spalding.  I apologize for the poor quality—I need to get a better camera!  I hope to add more photos by Lisa Sheirer to this article. 


Information on the culinary and medicinal qualities of plants is for educational purposes only.  Do not ingest any plant without experience in plant identification!

Last Updated on Sunday, 19 June 2011 23:14
Comments (4)
violets & Mary
Jeff Davis
Thursday, 23 June 2011 11:24
Once again, you have done a great job in imparting your love of flowers in a very well-written article. More, more, more; please keep writing more.....flowers are always fine, but anything you write will be of interest.
Mary Spalding
Friday, 29 July 2011 16:21
Thank you, Jeff! You've inspired me to write more and, yes, to perhaps widen my range. Hope to see you and Susan soon!
Mary Spalding
Thursday, 30 August 2012 12:50
Regarding my quest for yellow violets mentioned above, I am happy to report that I HAVE discovered a treasure trove of yellow violets, found early this spring in Garrett County! I did not attempt to transplant, but the number was sufficient that I might try one or two plants next spring. [I hear some of you shudder--but I have the perfect environment for violets and wouldn't take them if I didn't believe I could keep them going and hopefully increase their range just a little, and only because they grew in abundance there!)
Author's Comment on Additional Scientific Names for Common Violet
Mary Spalding
Thursday, 26 June 2014 03:21
Here it is, three years after I wrote this article, and I'd like to add another thousand words or two to include more information on this wonderful little plant, such as its high vitamin content and a host of other factoids. A great place to find this information is in Euell Gibbons' chapter on violets in his *Stalking the Healthy Herbs.* However, I do want to add that the common violet is a common name given to a number of different species of violets. The one I listed is native to England but has also spread throughout North America. A native to the eastern U.S. is *V. sororia,* and another "blue violet" (as all three of these species are also known) is *V. appalachiensis.* My photo is not very clear, so I can't say for sure which variety those blooms represent. To further complicate matters, the Appalachian variety closely resembles two other species, according to http://www.naturalheritage.state.pa.us/factsheets/14866.pdf. Given my particular interest in Appalachia, I am eager to know whether the ones proliferating in my yard and woods are this native plant. I need to more scientifically identify the many similar species that may be growing wild in my yard--but no matter their genetics, I welcome each and every one.
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