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Violets --Viola ordorata, also known as sweet violets, so delicate with their velvety purple petals. For me, they always conjure up images of lace gloved matrons sipping sherry from cut crystal glasses. The air, of course, is thick with the intoxicatingly clean, sweet perfume that could only belong to violets.
Many cultures, primarily the Celts and the Germans, celebrate the arrival of springtime at the first sighting of violets. The Germans further celebrate this event with dancing and drinking of May wine, a concoction made of wine, herbs and of course violets.
Combining wine and violets dates back to the days of the ancient Greeks, who would not only put the petals in the wine, but also scatter them all about the banquet hall. They also wore garlands decorated with violets in the belief that this would help to prevent dizziness and headaches from overindulging in drink. (There must be some basis for this since today in France violets are used in the treatment of hangovers).
Napoleon was also very fond of violets, even going so far as to adopt the violet as the symbol of his party. Josephine is reputed to have worn violets in her locket, and covered Napleons grave with violet petals.
Throughout the years people have used violets for medicinal purpose, usually in the form of a tea taken internally. In Pakistan, it is drunk to increase sweating and thus reduce fever. It is also reputed to relieve anxiety, insomnia and reduce high blood pressure. In the 17th century throat lozenges, made with violet conserve, were used to treat bronchitis, as well as to combat sinus congestion. Violet sugar was a popular staple in apothecaries of the time. This was used to treat consumption. These treatments worked because of the antibacterial properties of the blossoms. In addition, they contain vitamin C and A, and an aspirin like compound.
For external treatments, violets were mixed with vinegar to make liniments. These were used to relieve gout, and to ease liver and spleen problems. The Celts were known to steep violets petals in goats milk to make a facial treatment aimed at improving ones complexion.
One of violets most notable trait's is its delicate fragrance. It is ironic that this aroma is rarely used today to make perfume because the scent dissipates quickly. It is often replaced by synthetics.
When violets are used in the kitchen, it is their candied form that most of us are familiar with. In the Victorian times these were so popular that they were often served as a confection for high tea. They were also used to garnish cakes, pastries, flans and puddings. These days people tend to use the fresh petals more than the candied ones. I love to add them to chilled soups (they are especially striking on creamy spring pea soup). Try adding them just before serving to a salad of fresh spring greens. Not only do they add rich color, but a delicious floral taste as well. I will often use Johnny-Jump-ups in addition to the violets. They, along with pansies, are part of the violet family. Their flavor and perfume is not as strong as those of the violets, but their vivid colors, and contrasting face-like patterns transform a plan salad into a delightful treat. Violets are also used to add deep color and perfumed taste to jellies, jams, and liqueurs. Commercially available violet water can be used to add that floral quality to cakes, tea breads, ices, and poached fruit.
The garden is where violets truly shine. Being a perennial, you can enjoy them year after year, in rock gardens, pots, borders and formal gardens, almost anywhere there is rich, moist soil, full sun (partial shade in very hot regions) and good drainage.
Native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, violets have now naturalized in most temperate zones. They propagate by seed, or by root division. Plant them in fall in mild winter areas, and fertilize well to insure a showy burst of flowers come spring.
Their relatives, pansies (Viola tricolor hortensis) and Johnny-Jump-ups (I), are becoming more popular because of how simple they are to grow, how well the establish, and how hardy they are. Another plus is the wide range of color combinations available, from soft pastel yellows and apricot tones to deepest purple petals with vivid orange faces. I saw this combination the other day and it is truly breathtaking!
Considered annuals, these brightly colored short plants add wonderful contrast to other tall, graceful spring plants such as tulips, irises, and daffodils. They last well after other spring flowers have faded, and continue to spread and blossom well into summer in cooler regions. Now that the daffodils have all died back in the border next to the pathway in the garden the violas still thrive. The two toned lavender pansies, the velvety violets, and the deep purple Johnny-Jump-ups with their bright yellow faces seem to smile up at me as I pass by, causing me to smile too. What a great way to greet springtime!
Violet and Orange Whipped Cream and Strawberries
A very simple but elegant way to showcase succulent spring strawberries.
2 tsp. candied violets*
2 tsp. candied orange peel
2 cups unsweetened whipped cream
2 baskets strawberries, stemmed and quarted
4 fresh violet blossoms, or Johnny-jump-ups
With a very sharp knife, chop the violets and the orange peel separately. Place the whipped cream in a bowl. Gently fold in the violets and the peel without deflating the cream. Divide the berries into four decorative dessert cups. Top with the flavored whipped cream, and serve, garnished with a fresh violet blossom on each dessert.
*available in specialty markets.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.