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Violets

This week, we’re looking at some of PEI’s spring wildflowers, and Violets are on today’s menu – literally! You can find these edible plants in almost every habitat – disturbed backyards, fields, and roadsides as well as natural forests, meadows, and bogs – and in colours ranging from white, yellow, or purple to combinations of all three.

Photo 1: Woolly Blue Violet (Viola sororia), a common native species on PEI.

While the leaves and flowers of all Violets are edible, the roots contain a variety of toxins (including cyclotides and saponins) so you’ll want to avoid those.  Like Cat-tails (Typha spp), Violets can bioaccumulate heavy metals and pollutants and so it is especially important to collect them from a clean site if you’re planning to eat them. It’s also important to know your species: we have more than a dozen different Violets, and some are provincially rare. 

 

Woolly Blue Violet (Viola sororia, Photo 1) is among our most common species, and can be found along roads and trails, field edges, and possibly right in your own backyard.  “Woolly” is a good description of this plant. Stems and leaves are covered in short hairs, and it has a beard – dense hairs on the white parts of the lower two petals.

Photo 2: Sweet White Violet (Viola blanda), a common native species on PEI.

Sweet White Violet (Viola blanda, Photo 2) is one of our common, white-flowered species. This is more of a woodland plant, so look for it along woods roads and trails or carpeting the floor among the leaf litter in mixed forests. Like Woolly Blue Violet, Sweet White Violet has that beard on the inner parts of the lower two petals. We do have two species of white violets that are rare, but one lacks that beard and the other has leaves that are long and narrow, not heart-shaped like most violets.

Photo 3: Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), a rare native species on PEI.

Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens, Photo 3) is our only yellow species, making identification easy when it’s in flower.  This is useful, as it’s also one of our rare violets and not something you should forage. I find this species in mature, undisturbed forests and riparian zones, and only know it from a handful of places on PEI.

 

Once you’ve found and identified one of our common species, give it a try!  Violets are exceptionally high in Vitamins A and C (more so than spinach and oranges, respectively).  Flowers can be eaten raw, used as a decorative garnish, made into syrup or jelly, or used to infuse vinegar. Like any edible flower, they can also be candied though I’ve never had the patience to try that.

 

Leaves can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach. They are rich in mucilage (a compound that is as thick and slimy as it sounds) which makes them useful as a thickener when added to soups or sauces.  It also gives them a particular texture when cooked that many people like, but I personally don’t care for. 

 

Plants high in mucilage have been used traditionally to treat coughs, colds, and respiratory issues, and Violets are no exception.  Flowers and leaves can be dried and used as tea, and Violet syrup can soothe mild sore throat and cough. Violet extractions have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and Violet leaves and flowers can be used externally as a poultice or added to lotions and creams. To make your own, just infuse chopped Violet leaves and flowers into almond, grapeseed, or olive oil for a few weeks and use this as the oil in any recipe for home-made hand lotion.

 

Violets only flower for a short time each year but – unlike the spring ephemerals I profiled on Monday – their leaves stick around all summer. Even so, young leaves have the best flavour and now is the ideal time to enjoy this part of PEI untamed.

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