Violet, Sweet

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Violet, Sweet

Botanical Name: Viola odorata (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Violaceae

Synonyms: Sweet-Scented Violet.
Parts Used: Flowers and leaves dried, and whole plant fresh.
Habitat: The Violet family comprises over 200 species, widely distributed in the temperate and tropical regions of the world, those natives of Europe, Northern Asia and North America being wholly herbaceous, whilst others, native of tropical America and South America, where they are abundant, are trees and shrubs. The genus Viola contains about 100 species, of which five are natives of Great Britain.

Description: The sweet-scented Violet appears at the end of February and has finished blooming by the end of April.

The familiar leaves are heart-shaped, slightly downy, especially beneath, on stalks rising alternately from a creeping rhizome or underground stem, the blades of the young leaves rolled up from each side into the middle on the face of the leaf into two tight coils. The flower-stalks arise from the axils of the leaves and bear single flowers, with a pair of scaly bracts placed a little above the middle of the stalk.

The flowers are generally deep purple, giving their name to the colour that is called after them, but lilac, pale rose-coloured or white variations are also frequent, and all these tints may sometimes be discovered in different plants growing on the same bank.

They bear five sepals extended at their bases, and five unequal petals, the lower one lengthened into a hollow spur beneath and the lateral petals with a hairy centre line. The anthers are united into a tube round the three-celled capsule, the two lower ones furnished with spurs which are enclosed within the spur of the corolla.

The flowers are full of honey and are constructed for bee visitors, but bloom before it is really bee time, so that it is rare that a Violet flower is found setting seed. There is indeed a remarkable botanical curiosity in the structure of the Violet: it produces flowers both in the spring and in autumn, but the flowers are different. In spring they are fully formed, as described, and sweet-scented, but they are mostly barren and produce no seed, while in autumn, they are very small and insignificant, hidden away amongst the leaves, with no petals and no scent, and produce abundance of seed. This peculiarity is not confined to the Violet. It is found in some species of Oxalis, Impatiens, Campanula, Eranthemum, etc. Such plants are called cleistogamous and are all self-fertilizing. The cleistogamous flowers of the Violet are like flowers which have aborted instead of developing, but within each one are a couple of stamens and some unripe seeds. In warmer climates, like Italy, these 'cleistogamous' buds develop into perfect flowers. Only occasionally do they do so in England. In the woodland species (Viola sylvatica) all the flowers on the plant may be cleistogamous.

The Violet propagates itself, also, in another way by throwing out scions, or runners, from the main plant each summer after flowering, and these in turn send out roots and become new plants, a process that renders it independent of seed.

The Violet is very abundant in the neighbourhood of Stratford-on-Avon, where it is nowadays much cultivated for commercial purposes.

Violet is the diminutive form of the Latin Viola, the Latin form of the Greek name Ione. There is a legend that when Jupiter changed his beloved Io into a white heifer for fear of Juno's jealousy, he caused these modest flowers to spring forth from the earth to be fitting food for her, and he gave them her name. Another derivation of the word Violet is said to be from Vias (wayside).

Other flowers besides the Violet formerly bore that name, e.g. the Snowdrop was called the 'bulbous or narcissus Violet'; the plant now called 'Honesty' (or Moonwort) had the apellation of 'Strange Violet'; and two species of Gentian were called 'Autumn Bell-flower' or 'Calathian Violet,' and another 'Marion's Violet. ' The periwinkle, now generally known in France by the name of Pervenche, in other times was known as 'du lisseron' or 'Violette des sorciers'; and our own Violet was called, in distinction from the others, 'March Violet,' and in French Violette de Mars.

At Paestum, which has been and still is famous for its Violets as well as for its roses, several kinds of Violets are found, and one species that grows in the woods has exceedingly large leaves and seed-vessels; but the flower is so small that it can hardly be seen; this has given rise to the idea that it blooms underground. The flowers are of a pale yellow.

The Violet of India bears its blossom in an erect position, while our own native plant hangs down its head. It has been suggested by Professor Rennie that the drooping position of the purple petals shaded still more by the large green flower-cup, serves as an umbrella to protect the seed while unripe, from the rains and dews, which would injure it. As soon as the seed is matured and the little canopy no longer wanted, the flower rises and stands upright on its stem.

Some butterflies feed entirely on Violet, and the stem of the plant is often swelled and spongy in appearance, due to insects, whose eggs were deposited on the stalk during the preceding summer. The little animal, on hatching out, finds its food ready for it, and penetrating the plant, disturbs its juices and causes this excrescence.

Violets were mentioned frequently by Homer and Virgil. They were used by the Athenians 'to moderate anger,' to procure sleep and 'to comfort and strengthen the heart.' Pliny prescribes a liniment of Violet root and vinegar for gout and disorder of the spleen, and states that a garland or chaplet of Violets worn about the head will dispel the fumes of wine and prevent headache and dizziness. The ancient Britons used the flowers as a cosmetic, and in a Celtic poem they are recommended to be employed steeped in goats' milk to increase female beauty, and in the Anglo-Saxon translation of the Herbarium of Apuleius (tenth century), the herb V. purpureum is recommended 'for new wounds and eke for old' and for 'hardness of the maw.'

In Macer's Herbal (tenth century) the Violet is among the many herbs which were considered powerful against 'wykked sperytis.' Askham's Herbal has this recipe for insomnia under Violet: 'For the that may not slepe for sickness seeth this herb in water and at even let him soke well hys feete in the water to the ancles, wha he goeth to bed, bind of this herbe to his temples. Violets, like Primroses, have been associated with death, especially with the death of the young. This feeling has been constantly expressed from early times. It is referred to by Shakespeare in Hamlet and Pericles and by Milton in Lycidas.

In parts of Gloucestershire the country people have an aversion to bringing Violets into their cottages because they carry fleas. This idea may have arisen from these insects in the stem.

When Napoleon went to Elba his last message to his adherents was that he should return with Violets. Hence he was alluded to and toasted by them in secret as Caporal Violette, and the Violet was adopted as the emblem of the Imperial Napoleonic party.

Violets were also and still are used in cookery, especially by the French. 'Vyolette: Take flowrys of Vyolet, boyle hem, presse hem, bray (pound) hem smal,' and the recipe continues that they are to be mixed with milk and floure of rys and sugar or honey, and finally to be coloured with Violets. A recipe called Mon Amy directs the cook to 'plant it with flowers of Violets and serve forth.'

A wine made from the flowers of the Sweet Violet was much used by the Romans.

Violets impart their odour to liquids, and vinegar derives not only a brilliant tint, but a sweet odour from having Violet flowers steeped in it.

The chief use of the Violet in these days is as a colouring agent and perfume, and as the source of the medicinally employed Syrup of Violets, for which purposes the plant is largely cultivated, especially in Warwickshire. The Syrup can be made as follows: To 1 lb. of Sweet Violet flowers freshly picked, add 2 1/2 pints of boiling water, infuse these for twenty-four hours in a glazed china vessel, then pour off the liquid and strain it gently through muslin; afterwards add double its weight of the finest loaf sugar and make it into a syrup, but without letting it boil. This is an old-fashioned recipe. Another recipe, from a seventeenth century recipe book: 'Sirrup of Violets 'Take a quantity of Blew Violets, clip off the whites and pound them well in a stone morter; then take as much fair running water as will sufficiently moysten them and mix with the Violets; strain them all; and to every halfe pint of the liquor put one pound of the best loafe sugar; set it on the fire, putting the sugar in as it melts, still stirring it; let it boyle but once or twice att the most; then take it from the fire, and keep it to your use. This is a daynty sirrup of Violets.' Syrup of Violet with Lemon Syrup and acetic acid makes an excellent dish in summer. The Syrup forms a principal ingredient in Oriental sherbet.

Cultivation: The Wild Violet has been developed by cultivation till its blossoms insome varieties are many times the original size.

One of the essential points for the successful cultivation of Violets, either for the sake of marketing the cut blooms, or for medicinal purposes, is clear atmosphere. They seldom do well near a town, because the undersides of the leaves are covered with hairs, which catch the grit, thus blocking the breathing pores.

Neglect of a few simple rules is invariably the cause of failure. One frequently finds a bed of Violets which produces nothing but leaves. The plants may have been healthy enough to begin with and they were probably well and truly planted, but after the first season of bloom they were allowed to spread and become overcrowded. The Violet must be renewed and replanted every year. Failure to perform this operation spells failure.

If the amateur contemplates growing Violets in order to obtain bloom during autumn and winter, April is a favourable time to set about the task of making a Violet bed. The Violet in summer time delights in partial shade, therefore the bed should be made if possible under the north-east side of a fence or hedge. The bed should be, however, placed fairly well in the open, and if grown in private gardens not in the dense shadow cast by house walls, nor under trees, though shade to a certain amount is absolutely essential in summer, as when exposed to sun the plants become overrun with red spider, an insect pest to which the Violet is specially liable. At the same time, it is as essential that the plants be exposed to the full sun in the autumn. If grown on a large scale, a suitable situation for summer quarters is between rows of sweet peas.

Ordinary garden soil will suffice for successful Violet culture, but the soil must be carefully prepared and deep digging is essential. This should be done some time before planting-out time; if possible in autumn, so that the ground may be left open to the effects of winter. Avoid, if possible, stiff clay, as in very wet soil Violets are apt to become diseased. Violets flourish best on a good medium soil, neither too heavy, nor too light. The ideal soil is a deep, sandy soil. Where the soil is heavy, it can be improved by an admixture of well-decayed manure, road grit, leaf-mould and burnt vegetable refuse. Rank stable manure must be avoided or the roots will produce any quantity of foliage and very few flowers. A dressing of leaf-mould is advantageous, as it w ill prevent the surface from becoming cracked in hot weather and will at the same time supply the roots with the medium in which they are most at home naturally.

The young plants should be rooted runners; plant not less than a foot apart each way. Choose a moist, dull day for planting, or if dry, puddle in the roots. If an inverted flower-pot be placed over each young Violet during the day in hot sunshine and lifted off during rain and at night, the plants will become established at much greater ease than if the ground were allowed to become baked by the sun. Water must be given copiously in dry weather, and the plants will also benefit at such times from a mulching or top dressing of leaf-mould or decayed manure, old mushroom-bed manure being useful for this purpose.

If the foliage assumes a yellow tint, it is almost an indication of the presence of red spider. The plants should then be sprinkled at frequent intervals with a mixture of sulphur and well-seasoned soot and a thorough syringing such as will reach the under-part of the foliage should also be given, using a solution of Gishurst compound, repeating the operation at intervals of a day or two, until the pest is eradicated.

The soil between the rows should be hoed frequently and the runners of most varieties must be removed in the summer. The single varieties, on account of their stronger growth, require more room than the double forms. Single varieties of the more modern kinds, such as the Princess of Wales, flower freely on the runners which issue from the parent plant, and for this reason such runners may be left. The double varieties, on the contrary, must have the runners removed so as to strengthen the crowns which give the finest blooms. Good single varieties besides the Princess of Wales are Wellsiana, La France, Admiral Avellan and California, and among the doubles Mrs. J. J. The double garden variety, especially the pale blue Neapolitan Violet which forms a stem 6 inches in height, is often called the Tree Violet.

From plants thus established in the open, a plentiful supply of blooms will be forthcoming in the following spring. It is, however, only in sheltered places that Violets will thrive in the open during winter. It is generally found necessary to transfer the plants to cold frames for flowering, and to grow the flowers for the sake of marketing the cut blooms for profit; this is absolutely essential, as without glass, Violets can only be obtained in March and April, when they are plentiful, cheap and unprofitable. Frames in which melon or cucumbers have been grown during the summer will be found eminently suitable for the purpose. A foundation of stable litter and leaves, a foot deep or more, turned frequently to allow the volatile gases to escape from the litter, and then well trodden, and covered with a layer of about 6 inches of rich loamy soil, makes a very suitable bed. A great point to bear in mind is the desirability of keeping the crowns of plants as near to the glass as possible. If therefore it is necessary to raise the bed this should be done before the plants are put in the winter quarters.

Water the Violets from the outdoor bed a day before lifting; by taking this precaution, it will be possible to lift the roots so that they bring away with them a good-sized ball of earth. All straggling runners should be cut away, leaving only two or three, already rooted probably, and showing flowers close up to the old plants. These reserved runners, if not already rooted, should be pegged down, and, in addition to flowering freely, will be just what are wanted for planting out next spring. There must be no crowding of the plants as, unless they are kept perfectly clear of each other, damping off is likely to take place, especially if the ventilation is faulty. They should be planted a foot apart, firmly and deeply, or sufficiently to bury the stems, keeping the crowns well out of the soil. Level all and give a good watering immediately to settle the roots, and keep the frame closed for a few days until the plants begin to make roots, but no longer. Plenty of air must be supplied day and night, as long as the weather remains mild. In frost keep the lights down, and when severe cover with mats, but do not keep the frames too close or dark from excessive covering. For Violets in frames, light and air cannot be overstudied, and whilst not allowing the frost to exercise a too severe influence upon them, it is advisable to expose them to all the fresh air and light obtainable, to keep the plants in healthy condition. The leaves when the plants are kept close and in darkness will turn yellow and lose their vitality, and under such conditions the plants soon become weakened and rendered incapable of producing flowers. It is a good plan to sprinkle the soil around the plants with a little finely-powdered charcoal, as the latter will absorb the moisture that unavoidably arises through the frames being kept closed and darkened during severe weather. Application of water to the roots of Violets in midwinter is not necessary, but later, when the sun exercises a greater evaporative influence and air in abundance can be admitted to the plants, it will be necessary to occasionally apply water as well as manure in liquid form. Care must be taken to keep the glass clean and free from any smoky deposit which obscures the light; in cleaning the glasses both sides regularly, avoid any drip on to the plants. Remove all decaying foliage and constantly watch for slugs. Fog is bad for Violets in frames: it causes the leaves to damp off and sometimes kills the plants outright.

Plants removed to frames in the latter half of September, if properly attended to, will begin to bloom early in October and continue to flower till April. In this month, after suitable cuttings and runners have been taken from them for next season's use, they may be thrown or given away, for each season young plants alone should be cultivated. If a little fresh soil is given early in March as a topdressing to the plants in the frames, the runners become stronger and better rooted for planting out-of-doors. Besides being kept moist at the roots by occasional watering, their growth is much benefited by an overhead sprinkling in the evening during the summer, when the surrounding soil is hot and dry. While this promotes a healthy growth, it tends also to keep down red spider.

Some growers raise their young plants from cuttings taken early in October, when lifting the plants to put them into frames or cool greenhouses. At this time, it is easy to secure a few hundreds of the healthiest cuttings, heeling them in till time permits of their being dealt with. Inserted in boxes of soil or preferably under spare lights, model plants for putting out in March or early April will result, which in turn give the finest flowering clumps.

Parts Used Medicinally: The flowers dried and the leaves and whole plant fresh.

The odour of the flowers is in a great measure destroyed by desiccation and the degree to which they retain their colour depends on the method of collecting and drying them.

The Violet flowers used for Syrup of Violets are not always the ordinary wild V. odorata, the colour of which soon fades, except under special treatment. Other species with deeper-coloured and larger blue flowers, and also deep-coloured garden Violas and Pansies are often substituted for the Sweet Violet, for upon the colour their value depends.

Constituents: The chief chemical constituents of the flowers are the odorous principle and the blue colouring matter, which may be extracted from the petals by infusion with water and turns green and afterwards yellow with alkalis and red with acids. The flowers yield their odour and slightly bitter taste to boiling water and their properties may be preserved for some time by means of sugar in the form of Syrup of Violets.

A glucoside, Viola-quercitin, is also a constituent found throughout the plant and especially in the rhizome. It may be isolated by exhausting the fresh plant with warm alcohol, removing the alcohol by distillation and treating the residue with warm distilled water, from which it crystallizes in fine yellow needles, which are soluble in water, less so in alcohol and insoluble in ether. On boiling with mineral acids, the glucoside is split up into quercitin and a fermentable sugar. The activity of the plant, according to the British Pharmacopoeia, is probably due to this glucoside and its products of decomposition, or a ferment associated with it.

Salicylic acid has also been obtained from the plant.

The scientist Boullay discovered in the root, leaves, flowers and seeds of this plant an alkaloid resembling the Emetin of Ipecacuanha (which also belongs to the same group of plants), which he termed Violine. The same alkaloid was found by the French physician Orfila (1787-1853) to be an energetic poison, which may be identical with Emetin.

It has been found that the Toulouse Violet, which is without scent when cultivated in the land from which it takes its name, develops a very agreeable and pronounced perfume when raised at Grasse.

The growth of Violet flowers for the extraction of their perfume is not carried out to such an extent as formerly, as the natural perfume is suffering severely from the competition of the artificial product which forms the greater part of the Violet perfume of commerce. The natural perfume is very expensive to extract, an enormous quantity of flowers being required to scent a pomade. The largest Violet plantations are at Nice. The species used are the double Parma Violet and the Victoria Violet. A certain amount of perfume of a distinctive character is also now made from the green leaves of Violet plants, taken just before flowering.

Medicinal Action and Uses: The Violet is still found in the Pharmacopoeias.

Violet flowers possess slightly laxative properties. The best form of administration is the Syrup of Violets. Syrop Violae of the British Pharmacopoeia directs that it may be given as a laxative to infants in doses of 1/2 to 1 teaspoonful, or more, with an equal volume of oil of Almonds.

Syrup of Violets is also employed as a laxative, and as a colouring agent and flavouring in other neutral or acid medicines.

The older writers had great faith in Syrup of Violets: ague, epilepsy, inflammation of the eyes, sleeplessness, pleurisy, jaundice and quinsy are only a few of the ailments for which it was held potent. Gerard says: 'It has power to ease inflammation, roughness of the throat and comforteth the heart, assuageth the pains of the head and causeth sleep.'

The flowers are crystallized as an attractive sweetmeat, and in the days of Charles II, a favourite conserve, Violet Sugar, named then 'Violet Plate,' prepared from the flowers, was considered of excellent use in consumption and was sold by all apothecaries. The flowers have undoubted expectorant qualities.

The fresh flowers have also been used as an addition to salads; they have a laxative effect.

An infusion of the flowers is employed, especially on the Continent, as a substitute for litmus, as a test of acids and alkalis. Of the leaves, Gerard tells us that they: 'are used in cooling plasters, oyles and comfortable cataplasms or poultices, and are of greater efficacies amongst other herbs as Mercury, Mallowes and such like in clisters for the purposes aforesaid.' They are an old popular remedy for bruises. Culpepper says: 'It is a fine pleasing plant of Venus, of a mild nature and no way hurtful. All the Violets are cold and moist, while they are fresh and green, and are used to cool any heat or distemperature of the body, either inwardly or outwardly, as the inflammation in the eyes, to drink the decoction of the leaves and flowers made with water or wine, or to apply them poultice wise to the grieved places; it likewise easeth pains in the head caused through want of sleep, or any pains arising of heat if applied in the same manner or with oil of Roses. A drachm weight of the dried leaves or flowers of Violets, but the leaves more strongly, doth purge the body of choleric humours and assuageth the heat if taken in a draught of wine or other drink; the powder of the purple leaves of the flowers only picked and dried and drank in water helps the quinsy and the falling sickness in children, especially at the beginning of the disease. It is also good for jaundice. The flowers of the Violets ripen and dissolve swellings. The herbs or flowers while they are fresh or the flowers that are dry are effectual in the pleurisy and all diseases of the lungs. The green leaves are used with other herbs to make plasters and poultices for inflammation and swellings and to ease all pains whatsoever arising of heat and for piles, being fried with yoke of egg and applied thereto.' The underground stems or rhizomes (the so-called roots) are strongly emetic and purgative. They have occasionally been used as adulterants to more costly drugs, notably to ipecacuanha. A dose of from 40 to 50 grains of the powdered root is said to act violently, inciting nausea and great vomiting and nervous affection, due to the pronounced emetic qualities of the alkaloid contained.

The seeds are purgative and diuretic and have been given in urinary complaints, and are considered a good corrective of gravel.

A modern homoeopathic medicinal tincture is made from the whole fresh plant, with proof spirit, and is considered useful for a spasmodic cough with hard breathing, and also for rheumatism of the wrists.

The glucosidal principles contained in the leaves have not yet been fully investigated, but would appear to have distinct antiseptic properties.

Of late years, preparations of fresh Violet leaves have been used both internally and externally in the treatment of cancer, and though the British Pharmacopoeia does not uphold the treatment, it specifies how they are employed. From other sources it is stated that Violet leaves have been used with benefit to allay the pain in cancerous growths, especially in the throat, which no other treatment relieved, and several reputed cures have been recorded.

An infusion of the leaves in boiling water (1 in 5) has been administered in doses of 1 to 2 fluid ounces. A syrup of the petals and a liquid extract of the fresh leaves are also used, the latter taken in teaspoonful doses, or rubbed in locally. The fresh leaves are also prepared as a compress for local application.

The infusion is generally drunk cold and is made as follows: Take 2 1/2 OZ. of Violet leaves, freshly picked. Wash them clean in cold water and place them in a stone jar and pour over them 1 pint of boiling water. Tie the jar down and let it stand for twelve hours, till the water is green. Then strain off the liquid into a well-stoppered bottle and the tea is ready for drinking cold at intervals of every two hours during the day, taking a wineglassful at a time till the whole has been consumed each day. It is essential that the tea should be made fresh every day and kept in a cool place to prevent it turning sour. If any should be left over it should be thrown away.

As a cure for cancer of the tongue, it is recommended to drink half this quantity daily at intervals and apply the rest in hot fomentations.

Injection. - About a couple of wineglassfuls made tepid can be used, if required, as an injection, night and morning, but this infusion should be made separate from the tea and should not be of greater strength than 1 OZ. of leaves to 1/2 pint of water.

As a hot Compress, for external use, dip a piece of lint into the infusion, made the same strength as the tea, of which a sufficient quantity must be made warm for the purpose. Lay the lint round or over the affected part and cover with oilskin or thin mackintosh. Change the lint when dry or cold. Use flannel, not oilskin, for open wounds, and in cold weather it should be made fresh about every alternate day. Should this wet compress cause undue irritation of the skin, remove at once and substitute the following compress or poultice: Chop some fresh-gathered young Violet leaves, without stems, and cover with boiling water. Stand in a warm place for a quarter of an hour and add a little crushed linseed.

A concentrated preparation is also recommended, made as follows: Put as many Violet leaves in a saucepan as can boil in the water. Boil for 1/2 hour, then strain, squeezing tightly. Evaporate this decoction to one-fourth its bulk and add alcohol (spirits of wine 1 in 15); 1 1/2 OZ. or 3 tablespoonsful of spirits of wine will keep 24 OZ. for a month. This syrupy product is stated to be extremely efficacious, applied two or three times a day, or more, on cotton-wool about the throat. This will not cause irritation unless applied to the skin with waterproof over for a considerable time, as under such circumstances moisture will cause irritation.

For lubricating the throat, dry and powder Violet leaves and let them stand in olive oil for six hours in a water bath. Make strong. It will keep any time.

A continuous daily supply of fresh leaves is necessary and a considerable quantity is required. It is recorded that during the nine weeks that a nurseryman supplied a patient suffering from cancer in the colon - which was cured at the end of this period - a Violet bed covering six rods of ground was almost entirely stripped of its foliage.

Violet Ointment. - Place 2 OZ. of the best lard in a jar in the oven till it becomes quite clear. Then add about thirty-six fresh Violet leaves. Stew them in the lard for an hour till the leaves are the consistency of cooked cabbage. Strain and when cold put into a covered pot for use. This is a good oldfashioned Herbal remedy which has been allowed to fall into disuse. It is good as an application for superficial tubercles in the glands of the neck, Violet Leaves Tea being drunk at the same time.