A low-growing, hardy perennial, 15 cm (6 in) tall, with a short rhizome and creeping stolon’s that root at the tips. The toothed, heart-shaped leaves form a basal rosette from which the solitary, drooping, purple or white flowers arise on long stalks, in spring.
History and traditions
Violets were greatly esteemed in the classical world and are mentioned by Theophrastus (400 BC) as well as appearing in the works of Horace, Pliny and Juvenal. The Greek word for violet is io and in Greek mythology lo, daughter of the King of Argos, was ravished by Zeus and then turned into a heifer so that his wife Hera wouldn’t find him out. But at least he had the decency to provide sweet-scented flowers (later named after her) for lo in heifer-form to eat. Violet was the favorite perfume of Josephine and the flowers became the emblem of the Bonaparte’s after Napoleon became sentimentally attached to them. Despite its elusive scent, the violet has long been an emblem of constancy. Many medicinal uses are listed in old herbals and syrup of violets was a gentle laxative, still in use at the beginning of the 20th century. Household recipe books from the 16th to the 19th centuries give many examples of violet flower syrups, honey, conserve, cakes and vinegar. John Evelyn suggests eating the leaves and this is his recipe: “Violet Leaves, at the entrance of spring fried brownish and eaten with Orange or Lemon Juice and Sugar is one of the most agreeable of all the herbaceous dishes” (Acetaria, 1719).
Grow in humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil, in sun or partial shade. The easiest method of propagation is by division in autumn. Also grown from seed sown in spring or autumn. Parts used Flowers fresh for culinary use; leaves, flowers, rhizomes fresh or dried for use in infusions and medicinal preparations; essential oil extracted from flowers.
A healing, anti-inflammatory herb with expectorant, diuretic properties, it is taken internally as a tea for coughs, colds and rheumatism. Applied externally in compresses and lotions for skin complaints, swellings and ulcers and in gargles for mouth and throat infections. The essential oil is used in aromatherapy. V. tricolor is known to be a heart tonic, used to treat high blood pressure, colds and indigestion.
The flowers are candied, made into jellies, jams, conserves and vinegars, or added fresh to salads and desserts.
The essential oil is used in perfumery.