Violets: The First Edibles of Spring
With Spring emerging all around us, and everyone itching to be outdoors again, I thought it would be a good time to talk about the uses of wild violets. Those beautiful, and if you’re a lawn purist, somewhat annoying, purple flowers that tend to take over your yard as soon as the weather starts to warm. Many people don’t give these flowers a second thought other than to mow them down, or maybe appreciate the sea of purple as you drive past a field of them. But these little flowers can provide some of the first spring food harvests and activities.
Wild violets, Viola sororia, are found throughout Eastern North America from March – June, and thrives in shady, poor soils, or lawns that are often cut too short to choke them out. These little flowers range in color between light lilac to dark blue-purple, although white with purple tongues are also a variant. Their leaves are slightly heart shaped and often found clumped together close to the ground, while the flower stems shoot up an inch or two above them. The scent of the native Viola sororia is faint and softly floral, while the Viola oderata is a more fragrant and sweet violet from Europe and Asia that has been introduced to North America, and can cross with the native wild violets easily making exact identification of species in the landscape difficult.
According to A Modern Herbal by Grieve, these little flowers contain nectar in their well instead of pollen, giving them a bitter-sweet flavor; the bitter coming from the petals themselves. The flower is said to contain vitamin C, and are often used as an edible garnish for salads and cakes or to add a soft floral flavor to tea. The leaves contain vitamin A & C and can also be added to salads or used as a soup green.
Historical usage from older herbalists such as Grieve and Culpepper note that violets were used to provide a mild laxative effect when eaten fresh. Gerard also recommended the use of a sweet syrup to do the same. As a tea, it was used historically to be soothing of the throat and lungs, as well as to decrease fever. It is advised not to eat too many of the flowers or leaves raw for risk of digestive upset.
Chemical analysis of both the leaves and flowers show they contain salicylic acid, which is a chemical component of aspirin, suggesting that they may offer some minor pain relief and explain the usage for fever reduction. Gerard also recommends the use of the leaves topically in a poultice to reduce inflammation, suggesting a mucilage effect that is cooling to the skin in addition to the pain relief.
In addition to using violets in salads and teas, modern bakers like to use the delicate flowers as edible garnish either plain or after candying. They are also often turned into a syrup and added as flavoring to deserts or beverages for their soft floral taste. After seeing all the beautiful blooms in my yard, and having spent most of winter binging The Great British Baking Show, I decided it might be fun to try candying these flowers myself.
Selecting Violets for Harvest
Your first step to using and enjoying violets is finding the right specimens to harvest. Be sure you are harvesting in an area that has not had any pesticides, herbicides, or any other lawn chemical added. Since neither my husband nor I are lawn purists, we tend to just let everything grow wherever it likes, all I needed to do was step off my porch to find some prime options.
You want to select flowers that are fully open and have unblemished petals. When you harvest, be sure to pluck the full stem and not just the flower head. The larger the flower and the longer the stem, the easier it will be to candy. If you plan to use these as cake or cupcake decorations, I like to have a little green to simulate the flower clump, so feel free to harvest some leaves too. Make sure they are full, unblemished and are heart-shaped.
· Fresh violet flowers and/or whole leaves
· Egg white
· Powdered sugar
· Small food paint brush
· Kitchen shears
· Fine mesh sifter
1. To start the candying process, first gently rinse the flowers and leaves and spread them out on a clean towel to air dry. The flower petals are thin so do not run the water too hard over the colander to avoid tearing. You can use the long stems to gently shake some excess water off the flowers before placing them onto the towel to dry.
2. Separate your egg white from the yolk; you can save the yolk for breakfast or use in another desert.
3. Once the flowers are dry, hold the flowers by the stem and use the paint brush to gently “paint” the egg white onto both the front and back of each petal. Make sure the full flower is covered. The egg white acts as a glue to adhere the sugar.
I tried both the painting and the dipping method for the egg white, and while it takes a lot more time to individually paint each petal front and back, it is the best approach. Dipping the flower into the egg white did provide more coverage, but it also caused the petals to flop and stick together. Once stuck, it’s next to impossible to separate them again without tearing. Stick with the paint brush for better success.
4. Once the flower has been coated in egg white, use a fine mesh sifter to sprinkle powdered sugar over the flower, front and back. It is the sugar that acts as a preservative, so make sure you fully and heavily coat the flower.
Once again, I tried the dipping method for the sugar and that was just disastrous. I was unable to get enough sugar onto all the parts of the petal evenly and it tended to clump. I also ran into petals folding and sticking together just like the dipping for the egg white. Once the sugar becomes wet it’s an unusable gluey mess. Lesson learned: No short cuts for this one.
5. Lay your sugared violet on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper to air dry overnight. If it’s humid, it may take a day or two to fully dry out. You could also opt to put the trays in the oven at 175 degrees to dry. Be very careful not to cook the flowers, you just want to give them enough heat to dry out. Once dried, you can cut the stem off the flower and place them in an air tight container to store.
If you have a cake decorator scissors, which is used to transfer frosting flowers to a cake, you can hold the flower steady and cut the stem prior to drying. While this saves room on your cookie sheet, it’s another step that risks folding the wet petals on themselves.
I hope you find some creative confections to add your homemade candied violets: cakes, cupcakes, cookies or breads all make a delicious way to use these lovely candies.