Violet (viola odorata)

The delicate, dark purple or white flowers of violet have a wonderful, sweet fragrance, but due to the plant’s chemical composition, the scent fades quickly. Native to Europe and Asia and naturalized throughout the temperate regions of the world, violet has had a place in the kitchen, medicine cabinet, and garden for centuries.

The ancient Romans infused wine with violets, then sweetened the drink with honey. The 1st-century herbalist Pliny the Elder wrote of the violet’s medicinal virtues, recommending it for gout and disorders of the spleen. The flowers were the favorite of French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and his first wife, Josephine. When she died in 1814, Napoléon planted violets on her grave. Before he was exiled in 1815, he picked some of the violets and put them in a locket, which he wore around his neck until the end of his life.


Plant profile

Common Names: Sweet Violet, Violet

Description: Creeping perennial, up to 6 inches tall; oval to heart-shaped leaves and sweet-scented, dark purple or white, five-petaled flowers

Hardiness: To Zone 5

Family: Violaceae

Flowering: Spring

Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and roots

Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized in North America; found along roadsides and in woodland areas

Culinary use

Violet flowers add color to salads and can be used fresh or candied as a dessert garnish. The fresh flowers can also be floated on cold soups.

Medicinal use

Violet leaves and flowers have a mild expectorant action, and a tea or syrup made from them can be taken to treat coughs, colds, and congestion. Herbalists have used violet tea to alleviate headaches, lower fevers (by inducing sweating), and relieve gastritis and bladder inflammation. Externally, this species is used as a poultice or to make an ointment for treating skin conditions. A decoction of the roots can be applied as a dressing to sore and swollen joints. The plant contains salicylic acid, the primary chemical compound found in aspirin.

The tea of a related species, Viola adunca, is sometimes given to children to treat stomach pain and asthma.

Caution: This plant contains saponins. Consuming large amounts of violet leaves can cause diarrhea and vomiting.

Ornamental use

Violets add welcome spring color to window boxes and other containers, rock gardens, and informal borders. In the garden, plant violets in large groups or masses for best effect.

Other uses

Violet leaf oil is used in various perfume and cosmetic products. Because it’s made from the plant’s leaves, the fragance is described as “green” and fresh, rather than sweet or floral.

How to grow it

Plant violets in well-drained, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Sow the seeds outdoors in fall, and mulch with leaf litter for winter. Or plant divisions in early spring, spacing the plants about 1 foot apart. Harvest violet leaves and flowers as needed throughout the plant’s flowering season. Use them fresh or dried.