By Sherry Schmidt ~ Western Reserve Herb Society~ Herb Scents Editor
“Perhaps no flower (not excepting even the queenly rose) claims to be so universal a favorite, as the viola tricolor; none currently has been honored with so rich a variety of names, at once expressive of grace, delicacy and tenderness”.
Dix, Dorothea Lynde. The garland of flora. S. G. Goodrich and Co. and Carter and Hendee, 1829.
Viola tricolor is a tiny 3-colored member of the Violaceae family. As a result of its popularity, both in society and in Romantic poetry, it has acquired many common names, including Wild Pansy, Johnny Jump-up, Heartsease, Heart's Ease, Heart's Delight, Tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, Come-and-cuddle-me, Three faces in a hood, Love-in-idleness, or Pink of my john.
This little plant is an herbaceous annual, biennial, or short-lived perennial wildflower found in lichen-dominated or meadow-like rocky outcrops, dry and sloping meadows, banks, fields, gardens, wastelands, sand fields, as well as seaside beaches. It was brought to North America from Europe.
Viola tricolor blooms spring through summer. After blooming, the fertile flowers are replaced by seed capsules producing up to 50 seeds in each capsule making it spread easily, though it is not particularly aggressive. When mature, the capsule will divide into 3 parts and the seed will be ejected. The plants are hermaphroditic and self-fertile, pollinated by bees.
A typical flower has violet or purple upper petals, white lateral petals and a yellow lower petal. Several purple veins originate from the flower’s throat. Its leaves have a variety of shapes. The lower blades are cordate-ovate, or heart- to egg-shaped. The middle and upper leaves are lanceolate or oblong-lanceolate (resembling a lance), rounded at the end and having parallel sides.
The beautiful flowers of Viola tricolor have a mild pea flavor, which combines equally well with sweet or savory foods, such as grilled meats and steamed vegetables. When newly opened, Viola flowers may be used to decorate salads. Candied violets are the flowers preserved by a coating of egg white and crystallized sugar. Alternatively, hot syrup is poured over the fresh flower and stirred until the sugar recrystallizes and has dried. Candied violets are still made commercially in Toulouse, France, where they are known as violettes de Toulouse. They are used for decorating cakes or trifles, or included in aromatic desserts. The French are also known for their violet syrup. Viola essence flavors the liqueurs Crème Yvette, Crème de Violette, and Parfait d'Amour.
Viola tricolor has medicinal benefits. It contains saponins (a naturally-occurring chemical compound), salicylates (a natural anti-inflammatory) and flavonoids (with powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties). Herbal uses include the treatment of eczema and autoimmune diseases and as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-pyretic, expectorant, capillary tonic, laxative and diuretic. Topical applications are for cradle cap, diaper rash, weeping sores, itchy skin, varicose ulcers and ringworm.
This viola has many additional uses. It supports Fritillary butterfly larvae. The flowers attract honeybees, bumblebees, long-tongued bees (Anaphora sp.), syrphid flies (Rhingia sp.), and butterflies. Its flowers can be used to make yellow, green and blue-green dyes. The leaves can be used in place of litmus paper to test acidity or alkalinity. Viola tricolor is also the progenitor of the cultivated garden pansy.
In the language of flowers, Viola is a symbol of innocence, modesty, and decency by the allusion of its little corolla, which seems to hesitate to leave its casket of leaves.