Winter’s accumulated snow and ice are beginning to melt on the Southern Alps of the South Island. Spring rains fall. The earth itself seems heavy with moisture, and the landscape is becoming a wellspring of life.
It is time for our planet to bring forth the latent potential within all living things. Seeds are germinating, leaves unfurling, plants budding, and insects awakening. Despite human beings’ growing separation from the abundance of our natural world, it would be odd not to be positively uplifted by the energy of spring stirring around us. Our physiology senses an opportunity for an inspired beginning; our bodies are primed to adjust system functions, to work with winter imbalances, and rejuvenate our deepest tissues. If we observe nature closely we can appreciate the phyto-performers from the “symphony of herbs” who awaken to herald this wondrous season. Among them is the spring violet, Viola odorata, modestly playing her healing tune in the herbal prelude of the return to warmer temperatures. Her beautiful signature of fragrance treats our sense of smell as she does so. After winter’s ability to dampen our mood, violet’s distinct perfume uplifts us. Violet wafting on a spring breeze can help us to breathe deeply, which in itself improves expulsion of toxins via the lungs, lymphatic flow, and emotional wellbeing.
Medicinally, violets, from the Violaceae family, demonstrate that immense benefit need not be associated with dramatic strength and medicinal intensity. On a foundational level, violets nourish. I like to encourage people to add the delicate blooms liberally to spring salads, brighten a quinoa dish, and float the vibrant violet colour on the cooling surface of spring soups. They are simply delicious! When the leaves are young and tender they have a light, fresh taste that our bodies crave when the warmer weather arrives. However, as they mature, bitterness may develop - perhaps even some astringency.
The violet is adept at tuning our lymphatic systems. Conditions such as sinusitis, ear problems and breast tenderness are all connected to under functioning lymphatics. Our lymph flow tends to become quite sluggish over the winter months. This is due to the possibility that we exercise less, eat more, and the cold weather contracts our blood vessels, and thickens fluids. Spring is an optimum time to give our lymphatics some therapy by moving our body, breathing deeply and enjoying spring greens, such as violets and cleavers. The lymphatic system - having no pump of its own - is reliant on the movement of the muscles, the blood circulation, and the breath to assist it around the body. It is in this relationship between fluids and movement that we can applaud Viola odorata’s performance qualities.
It is considered a cooling, moist herb. By consuming the flowers fresh, or as an infusion, an initial sensation of violet’s demulcent action may be experienced. There may also be a lightly astringent after-effect; a subtle, yet noticeable, toning. This combination of soothing moisture and gentle toning reflects the interplay between relaxation and tension, which the lymphatic system needs to function effectively. The violet leaves alone are decidedly demulcent, helping to keep our body’s fluids flowing. This can be helpful for sore throats and dry coughs, or those where the mucus is sticky and not easily expelled; conditions which can often stage themselves at the change of season.
Despite the countless nourishing infusions in clinical herbal medicine, it seems that violets are rarely prepared as such. Their significant mineral and vitamin profile (particularly vitamins A and C in the leaves) helps to restore lost nutrients after the months of heavier winter eating. They are a perfect alternative, or addition, for those who try nettle infusions, and find the diuretic effect too drying for their constitution. Indeed, we may think of adding just a little nettle to generous violet infusions for those with drier constitutions. Made with the fresh leaf and flower, a violet infusion turns the most captivating colour: vivid green if it is mainly leaf, and rich turquoise with the addition of flowers.
Spring Violet Infusion
Infuse an arbitrary amount of fresh violet leaves, (chop up the fresh leaves finely to optimize extraction), and violet flowers in boiled water, which has been allowed to rest for five minutes before pouring on the herb material. Although nutrients are probably less efficiently extracted from the fresh plant, this tea still tastes wholesome and alive with spring.
The following provides us with inspiration for a combinative infusion:
Mineral Rich Spring Tea with Violet
Combine violet leaves with horsetail, oatstraw, red clover, hawthorn leaf and flower, chamomile, and raspberry leaves. This tea is rich in silica, potassium, iron, and calcium.
Of interest, herbalist Juliette De Bairacli Levy wrote that violet (blossoms and leaves) have been known to have a relaxing effect by “calming deranged nerves, improving weak memory and soothing restlessness” (1973).
Spring Relaxation Tea with Violet
Combine violet leaves with blue vervain, linden leaf and flower and elderflower.
As a delicately presenting herb, it reflects its ability to work with our skin, which is also a sensitive life form. Both Viola odorata and Viola tricolor, the herbal Viola duet, are appropriate in topical oils, or skin washes. Their cooling, soothing, and protective properties can be used on both dry and weeping eczema, as well as acne. The leaves and flowers contain volatile oils and saponins, both of which are extracted well in oil, and can then be made in to a therapeutic cream. A healing combination of violet, chickweed, or lavender infused oils is useful depending on the specific topical needs of the person.
Spring, being a season of new beginnings, is an opportune time for educating people about the benefits of massage. Such rejuvenating practice can be focused on compromised body tissue, or undertaken for general health benefits, whilst fostering an attitude of self-care and nurture. Women experience breast tenderness, which can vary with hormonal fluctuations throughout their cycle. Gentle breast massage becomes important for these people to nurture healthy breasts and their lymphatics.
A simple breast massage oil infused with Viola odorata’s unique ensemble of healing constituents could be made using this recipe:
Viola odorata Breast Massage Oil
28ml Violet infused organic sweet almond oil
2ml Vitamin E oil
2 drops each geranium and rose essential oils
Combine all the ingredients in a 30ml dark glass bottle. This preparation can be used to massage the breasts regularly. Geranium essential oil is one of the best for balancing the endocrine system, and is indicated for sore breasts due to fluctuating hormone levels. Rose resonates well with the heart.
Let us not forget Viola odorata infused honey! The sound of the Latin “odorata” (meaning fragant, perfumed) as it rolls off the tongue resonates well with adorable. This is just what violet honey is - fragrantly adorable! The flowers can remain infused even while eating the nutritious honey to add a decorative and delicious touch to food. It has many of the same properties as syrup, but is naturally better for those who seek the medicinal benefits of a raw local honey, rather than using sugar. Advantageously, you do not heat the flowers or honey at any time, so none of the antioxidants or vital enzymes will be destroyed in either ingredient.
Viola Odorata Raw Honey
Fill a jar with violet flowers, and cover with a soft, raw honey.
Stir with a chop stick.
Infuse for a fortnight or so. Turn the jar occasionally, or stir gently to enhance the infusion.
Somewhat metaphorically, violet is a memorable herb for childhood, which is often considered the “spring time” of life. It has a number of useful applications for little people: as a honey for coughs and sore throats, or to ease mild constipation. The infused oil can also be made into a salve or cream to ease their dry skin conditions.
Violet is a fine example of herbal medicine that is more than the sum of its constituents. Admittedly, it is not perhaps the strongest acting of herbs when it is tinctured and bottled, but even then it still has phytomedicinal uses. When it is admired in the wild, ingested as part of a seasonal diet, and acknowledged for its beauty, violet is an effective spring tonic in the “symphony of herbs”.
The upper petals of the sweet violet bloom are open to give and receive. The minute gold-on-white centre is protected by the lower petals, so visions cannot be compromised by the challenges of this world. The fine veins running through the petals are like nerves, indicating the delicate sensitivity of the violet’s existence. The violet head seems a little top heavy, as if it can sense our winter imbalances, and is weighed down by them. Growing close to the earth, they serve as a reminder to ground our thoughts in the present moment, and stabilise us when times are difficult. The large heart shaped leaves unfurl from the centre, perhaps suggesting that we open our hearts to all of life’s experiences, whilst remaining equanimous, centred, and free, in the glory of spring.
“For scents that herald spring time
For lilac haunted nooks
For violet’s purple fragrance
And merry, trickling brooks
For little things
That give souls wings
We can give thanks.”
(Adapted from a Grace, by Monica Miller)
Viola odorata is virtuous, vivacious, and valuable to our health. She is unassuming and oh, so gentle! Observe her heralding spring phyto-therapeutic blooms in our gardens, or even in the wild. Her long history of medicinal use indicates to us that we can give her greater performance recognition in the “symphony of herbs” and our health balance.
Play on, Viola odorata!
Fisher C., Painter G., (2009) Materia Medica
De Bairacli Levy, J., (1973) Common Herbs for Natural Health. Schocken Books. New York.
Grieve, M., (1996) A Modern Herbal. Barnes and Noble Books. New York.
Hellinger, R., Koehbach, J., Fedchuck, H., Sauer, B., Huber, R., Gruber, CW., and Grundemann, C., ( 2014) Immunosuppressive activity of an aqueous Viola tricolor herbal extract. J. Ethnopharmacol. Jan 10;151(1):299-306.
Hoffman, D., (2003) Medical Herbalism; the Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Healing Arts Press. Rochester, Vermont.