Friday, March 10, 2017

Foraging for wild violets: identification, edibility and sustainable harvesting


Identification difficulty: Beginner 

Wild violets are a beautiful, fleeting part of early spring. They grow low to the ground, dainty and unassuming, but bring a smile to every woodland walk. They are found in Europe and North America, and apparently in Australia as well.

Violets are also a tasty edible wildflower, with a unique flavor and aroma which has been valued for centuries. Violets were a vogue flavor in Victorian era, and after, up until the First World War. They were used in candy and baked goods; but trench warfare, and subsequent post-war expansion of roadways and urban areas across Europe, tore up many of the fields they were harvested from.


Perhaps its most famous use is in Creme de Violette, a liqueur made by infusing violets into a brandy or neutral spirit. Creme de Violette is beautiful and delicious, with deep purple color, delicate aroma, and impossible to replicate floral taste. For years it was nearly impossible to get a hold of (due to the scarcity of wild violets), but new crops are being harvested from the alps.

You too can experience the unique and elegant taste of violets, and without the expensive price tag, simply by taking a walk in the woods!

It's important to know that violets are native to our forests, not an introduced species. They are also essential for the heath of pollinators, like bees, so sustainable harvesting is a must! 

Because there are so many varieties of violets, I'll attempt to make a good summary of all members of the genus Viola in the family Violaceae. All are edible, and many will hybridize if growing close together. 

Violet identification step 1: season and flower

Violets grow low to the ground, no higher than about 6". They like shade and rich soil and generally prefer moist, but not wet, areas as well. 


Violets bloom from early to mid spring, depending on the variety. Flowers can be purple, magenta, white, periwinkle, lavender, or yellow. White flowers frequently have streaks of the other colors. In my experience, yellow is the rarest, and also blooms first.


Violet flowers have 5 petals, 2 at the top, 2 on the sides, and one narrow one that's bottom center. It always reminds me of a tongue hanging out of a face, if you imagine the top petals as the forehead and side petals as the cheeks. No? Just me? Ok :(

The violet shares this shape with the pansy, which is also in the Violaceae family, and also edible. The shape of violet flowers is an important identification tool, make sure to look at lots of pictures. 


Violet identification step 2: leaves

Violets have heart-shaped leaves, which are available throughout the growing season. The leaf edges are scalloped or saw-toothed.  Some leaves are "shorter, fatter and rounder" hearts, and some are long and lean like this one above. If you look at the leaves of the yellow violet, the scalloping is very shallow. There is a lot of variation among the species.

Beginners shouldn't harvest the leaves without the flowers, for fear of misidentification with lesser celandine. 

Eating and enjoying violets

Violet leaves are a tasty salad green, with a flavor like sweet peas + lettuce. For the more experienced forager, they are available throughout the growing season, but they are best in the spring. Cooking the leaves is a waste, as they cook down to nothing.

Violet flowers have a unique flavor, softly floral, much less intense than rose. They too can be eaten as in a salad, but they will most likely get lost with the other flavors.

If you have a lot of violet flowers, you can try making a jelly or jam. To me, the flowers are best used as an infusion in alcohol or made into a syrup, which can then be added to baked goods or drinks. Seriously, try it in champagne or a smoothie!



Sustainable foraging

Violets serve an essential ecological niche. As early bloomers, they provide nectar to the hives of pollinators, like honey bees, that have been dormant all winter. Violets are also frequently threatened from habitat loss, and the presence of invasive species that crowd them out.

Harvesting just the blossom doesn't hurt the plant, but it does reduce nectar for pollinators. For that reason, never take more than half of the available blooms. Taking the leaves does do some harm. It reduces the plant's ability to photosynthesize, to make food for itself. It's best not to take the leaves while the plant is flowering, as it's already expending extra energy. Take no more than 25% of the leaves from one plant (generally just one or two), and only harvest from plants that are well-established, and abundant.

You can also transplant violets from well-established patches to good environments on your own property. If they are in an ecosystem they like, they will flourish and spread rapidly. They make great ground cover for shady areas.




Look a-like plants

Lesser celandine
Violet leaf, left is edible anytime, raw or cooked.
Lesser celandine, right, is toxic raw and at later stages of it's life. 

The only potentially dangerous look-a-like for wild violets would be lesser celandine, Ficaria verna, (formerly known as Ranuculus ficaria). Lesser celandine is toxic, when eaten raw or after the plant flowers. It is only edible before flowering, and when cooked.

The flower of lesser celandine looks very different from violet, it's yellow and star-shaped. But the leaf, as you can see above, is very similar. Lesser celandine is an invasive weed which likes the same habitat as native violets, and will take-over and run the violets out of town. It's found in the Northeastern USA, Midwest, Pacific Northwest, Eastern Canada, Texas, California, and throughout the UK. It may be other places as well.

Lesser celandine flower
Beginner foragers in these areas should avoid eating violets before they flower. After they flower, make sure every leaf runs back to a violet plant, not a star-shaped yellow flower. Novice and intermediate foragers should study the picture above, and note the "saw tooth" edge of the violet leaf, verses the subtle scalloping of the lesser celandine. Lesser celandine also has a glossy or waxy finish, and it's veins are less strongly palmate.

If you can safely ID lesser celandine before it flowers, feel free to try it, in small amounts, cooked. You can also remove it anytime, since it's invasive and can wipe out native plants.



Trout lily, or Dog-toothed violet

Most commonly known as the trout lily, but also sometimes called the dog-toothed violet, Erythronium species come in white or yellow. The flower resembles that of a violet, but they are actually members of the lily family.


Trout lily leaves are very different from that of violets. They are long, narrow ovals, dark green, with even darker green mottling.

Trout lilies are edible, flowers, leaves and even underground bulbs, but they are often threatened or endangered, as they are slow to reproduce and harvesting any part of the plant does damage. They also face extra pressure from habitat loss and invasive species. Finally, they are essential for the survival of pollinators. Thus, I do not recommend them to foragers, except in very specific situations on private land, where they are extremely abundant.



African violets
African violets are non-native to North America, (or Europe) and generally won't survive here in the wild. They have a very different flower shape than northern violets. They have rounded or oval leaves, and the flowers are star-shaped, with 6 petals.


Vinca, or periwinkle
Periwinkles, Vinca minor, are also non-native in North America, so you will generally only find them planted in beds. Vinca looks very different from members of Viola, yet I have seen people confuse the two. Vinca have a star-shaped, or classic flower-shaped, blossom. They are purple, or purplish blue, but their leaves are dark, oval, and don't have scalloped edges. Leaves also have a waxy look. Vinca, like African violets, are not considered poisonous, but nor are they edible.

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