Edible Flowers; Violet or Viola: History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition
Viola or violets, as they are commonly known, are types of small wild pansies from the Violaceae botanical family, of which there are over 500 varieties, including wild, cultivated and hybrid species.
Most violets have edible flowers and leaves. They contain antioxidants and have medicinal properties. Violets have a delicate, sweet and sometimes peppery flavor, yet most people have never eaten them, despite the fact they grow abundantly in woodlands, meadows and along hiking trails in Europe and in the USA. But although they may be an underrated food resource, identifying them in the wild requires knowledge because there are some flowers that resemble violets, such as spring larkspur and monkshood, which are in fact poisonous. And just in case you had thought about adding a few African violets to your salad, don’t. African violets were so named because of their resemblance to violets, although they are not true violets and are not edible.
Violets are a symbol of everlasting love. They have long been associated with romance and are mentioned in romantic literature. In his sonnet 99, William Shakespeare wrote; “Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal the sweet, if not from my lovers breath”. Shakespeare had likened the violet to a thief. Implying that its sweet fragrance was stolen from his lovers breath. Shakespeare also popularized violets in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Some have questioned Shakespeare’s taste in flowers because many varieties of violet have very little fragrance. This is true of North American violets, however many European varieties, including Viola adorata are very fragrant and are widely used in the manufacture of cosmetics.
Moving forward to the 19th century, Napoleon’s wife the Empress Josephine was very fond of violets which she grew at their manor house, Chateau de Malmaison. Napoleon’s supporters adopted the violet as a symbol of their struggle and Napoleons ultimate return. Josephine died while Napoleon was still in exile on Elba Island. Upon his return Napoleon picked violets from Josephine’s garden and kept them with him in a locket until the day he died, as a reminder of their tempestuous love.
Culinary Uses of Violets: Violets are available in springtime and are considered a leafy vegetable. They are often added raw to salads, but can also be sautéed like spinach and added to stir-fry vegetables. Wild violets also have a somewhat viscous texture when cooked which is used in traditional cooking as a thickener for soups and stews. Essential oil is extracted from violets and is used to flavor confectionaries such as ice cream, pastries and also liquors. Also keep in mind that although the flowers and leaves of this plant are perfectly edible, never eat the rhizome or root. Violet rhizome is poisonous to humans. Below is an example of common edible violets;
Viola papilionacea, also known as the common blue violet, has butterfly shaped petals, hence its Latin name papilionacea, meaning butterfly. The common blue violet, which is native to North America, flowers in early spring through summer as do other common violets varieties, Viola sororia (woolly blue violet) and Viola septentrionalis ( northern blue violet).
Viola odorata, also known as sweet violet, is a hardy perennial that can grow to a height of 6 inches. It can be white, purple and sometimes yellow. It appears in late winter and continues to flower through mid-spring.
Viola tricolor (primary image) looks similar to a pansy and has multicolored heart shaped petals of blue, purple, white, yellow and black. It is a perennial, but is often grown as an annual because it flowers prolifically in its first year only.
Nutritional Value of Violets: Violets are a good source of vitamin C and also contain the phytochemical rutin. Rutin is a type of flavonoid or bioflavonoid mainly composed of quercetin and disaccharide rutinose. Rutin helps nuatralize damaging free radicals which helps to prevent chronic diseases such as cancer. Aside from its anticancer properties, ruitn helps strenghen blood capillaries, which can aid people who suffer with hemophilia and also varicose veins and hemorrhoids. Rutin is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and may also help prevent antherogenic heart disease by reducing toxicity to oxidized LDL cholesterol. Aside from violets, other foods that contain rutin are apples, black tea and onions.
Avoid eating yellow violets as they can act as a laxative and never eat flowers purchased at a flower shop or nursery as these may have been treated with harmful chemicals. Instead purchase edible organic flowers from a specialist grocery stores such Wholefoods market.