This beautiful little flower is a welcome sight in my garden at this time of year.
Flowering is from February to May (Barker). The photos here taken in my own garden in February.
So why the title “may violets spring”?
Sweet violets do make me think spring is near as they spring up so early in the year. However “may violets spring” is from Shakespeare.
Any reader of Shakespeare, or Hamlet in particular, may remember this on the death of Ophelia.
Lay her in the earth;
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring!
Hamlet, Act V, Scene I – A Churchyard (on death of Ophelia)
Violets are flowers many will know. However, there are many different species of violet and they all look a little similar. However, sweet violet, as the name may suggest, is fragrant. Violets prefer growing in damp woods or shady spots. In my own garden, I have some violet species flourishing under a tree. Leaves heart shaped.
I have sweet violets growing in a shaded patch to the side of my house and the odour is just lovely.
In herbal medicine, we use the leaves either fresh or dried. However, flowers are generally preferred fresh. It is harvested during flowering.
Barker adds the rhizome can also be utilised but points out underground parts are stronger and are more likely to provoke emesis. I have personally only ever utilised aerial parts. I think most herbalists these days prefer to use aerial parts (i.e. flowers and leaves).
Early in flowering, leaves and flowers make a pretty addition in a wild foraged salad.
The following excerpt is from Harold Ward’s Herbal Manual.
Remarkable claims have been made for violet leaves in the treatment of malignant tumours. The case of Lady Margaret Marsham, of Maidstone, was reported in the Daily Mail for November 14th, 1901. This lady, suffering from cancer of the throat, used an infusion, which was left to stand for twelve hours, of a handful of fresh violet leaves to a pint of boiling water. After a fortnight of warm fomentations with this liquid the growth was said to have disappeared.
The same newspaper, under date March 18th, 1905, told its readers that violet leaves as a cure for cancer were advocated in the current issue of the Lancet, where a remarkable case was reported by Dr. William Gordon, M.D. Such accounts as these, although interesting, should be read with considerable reserve.
Harold Ward, 1936
Barker suggests interest in Viola odorata has maintained due to the plants reputation as an anti-neoplastic.
Indeed in more recent years, research has found a cyclotide from Viola odorata to have antitumor effects. Research in this area continues.
Viola odorata has a strong affinity with the respiratory system.
Mabey (1988) suggests the combination of saponin and mucilage make Viola odorata a soothing expectorant. It has a cooling nature used for hot headaches and feverish colds. Finally, he adds the mild sedative nature makes it useful where there is accompanied insomnia or anxiety.
Tobyn (1997) notes sweet violet will cool over-heated lungs. Barker (2001) describes it has having expectorant action useful for cough but finds it soothing rather than sedative. I would tend to agree myself and believe it soothing rather than sedative.
Menzies-Trull agrees it is a demulcent expectorant. He also highlights Viola as an anti-neoplastic particularly for malignancy of breast and intestine.
… and some energetics…
Under the dominion of Venus, and utilised by Culpeper for purging the body of excess choleric humours. Leaves, he reported, were stronger for this purpose although flowers also used. The choleric humour is hot and dry.
Menzies-Trull adds it moderates anger. Anger is generally, like the choleric humour, thereby heating.
Viola odorata is cold in the 1st degree and moist in the 2nd degree and under the dominion of Venus (Tobyn, 1997). Culpeper prescribed this as a cooling cordial. Today this herb described as emollient (Barker, 2001) confirming its traditional moist attribute.
Violets may see the start of warmer weather. However, the humble little “may violets spring” is definitely a soothing, cool friend.