Folkdays: Violets

A spring bloom I’ve been really drawn to this year is violets. A few months ago, I would have struggled to identify these plant from any other purple flowers I spotted in a verge. But now I know what to look for, I am spotting them everywhere!

Recently, I have had a go at foraging these flowers, and crafting them into a sweet violet syrup. It’s also been a while since I’ve written a Folkdays post, so I will be combining the process I followed with the folklore of these flowers in this post.

Firstly, I want to mention where I found the recipe for the violet syrup I made. The recipe is from The Green Witch, from her video on Youtube (which can be viewed here). Annie’s videos are so beautiful and peaceful to watch, and some of her other recipes look really interesting, and I’d love to try them out in the future.

I began by learning a bit about violets, and by starting to notice and identify them out and about. I think it’s really important that, if you’re going to forage something to consume, you really know which plants you’re looking for. The wild species of sweet violets are perennial, and begin blooming anywhere from late winter to early spring. I began finding plenty blooming during April, but I had seen them here and there since February and still see them now in May. They thrive in areas where they get winter and spring sun, but summer shade: in moist soil, in woodlands or under hedgerows are common places to find them.

Violets look a little simpler and plainer than violas or pansies, which are the more cultivated horticultural variety. The leaves of violets are heart-shaped, and the hairs on their stems point downwards. The flowers have five petals, two on the top and three on the bottom, which are bluish-purple in colour and sweet smelling. Some folklore surrounding violets states that you will only be able to smell their pleasant scent once. There is some scientific truth to this, as the ionones in the flower’s chemical make–up dampens our smell receptors – though only for a short time. Nevertheless, the scent is widely adored, and has been used extensively in perfumery.

Violets also taste as sweet as they smell: the precursor to today’s Parma Violet confectionery were ‘Violet tables’, floral, sugary tablets created using violet petals as early as the 17th century. As I love the taste of Parma Violets, I knew I would also enjoy a sweet violet syrup, made from water, sugar, violet petals and lemon juice. I was limited in how much I could make by how many flowers I could sustainably forage. According to folk belief, like snowdrops and primroses, a lone violet is a bad omen (see Baker). Luckily, I found more than just one plant! Still, I only collected enough petals to fill one cup, and so had to scale Annie’s recipe down by a third. I ended up with almost a jar of syrup though, which is plenty to start with.

I picked the violet flowers just where the flower attaches to the stem. Here, the stem is curved like a shepherd’s crook, giving the flowers a drooping or ‘hunch-backed’ appearance. This resemblance to a bowed head has lead this flower to be associated with qualities of humility or modesty. According to one religious belief, violets once gazed sun-wards like other blooms, until the shadow of the cross fell over them and caused them to bend in shame and grief (Gray). In 20th century Victorian England, when customary mourning was still common, widows or widowers would transition from wearing black to violet as they moved through their phases of mourning (Inkwright).

Once I had collected the flowers, I gave them a quick but gentle swill. I dried them carefully and placed them in a bowl. I measured out the amount of water I needed and heated it, not quite to boiling as this would risk losing the colour of the petals. When it was the right temperature, I poured it over the petals, and left them to infuse overnight.

The violet’s connection to grief and mourning, death and darkness, runs through the folklore of many cultures. In ancient Rome, it was a flower symbolic of grief and innocence, and was often used to decorate the graves of children and babies. The violet is said to belong to the god Poklius in Lithuanian culture, and Patulas in Prussian culture – both gods of the underworld (Inkwright). It is also the favourite of Greek goddess Persephone: it was the flower she was gathering when she was taken by Hades, and the bloom she missed the most when she was in the Underworld. A similar tale comes from English folklore, which tells of King Frost, who ruled over the lower realm and kept the land in perpetual winter. When he married a young bride called Violet, his cold demeanour changed and the world received six milder months. Violet wished to visit her family, and King Frost would permit her once a year, in the guise of a flower, to appear to them (Gray). This time of year is our spring, when violets bloom.

The next day, despite it having twenty-four hours to soak, I found the water had been infused very little with the violet’s colour or taste. I deviated a little from Annie’s recipe here. I gave it a helping hand, by crushing the petals with a pestle to release the lovely purple tint and sweet taste. I then strained the liquid, getting every last drop from the flowers, and poured it into a saucepan.

The folklore of the violet is not all doom and gloom, however. Despite being associated with death, it appears mainly through its ability to comfort the grieving, and is sometimes known as ‘hearts-ease’. To return to Greek tradition: Zeus supposedly created violets from the tears of Io, a nymph he loved whom had turned into a white cow to hide from his wife Hera. Io grieved the life she had lost – and, apparently, the thought of eating grass for the rest of her life – so Zeus turned her tears to violets to comfort her, and give her something sweet to eat (Lehner).

Violets stand for comfort, but also hope. They have played a political role, as the favourite flower and emblem of Napoleon Bonaparte. For Napoleon, violets held sentimental value, as they were worn at his wedding to his wife Josephine, and covered her grave after her passing (Gray). Violets became his symbol, as like the flowers, Napoleon returned from his exile in Elba in the spring months. His soldiers used violets as a secret code to determine loyalty, and it featured in propaganda material for the Bonapartists (Inkwright, Lehner). For his supporters, the flower became viewed as a symbol of hope and success.

Right, back to the recipe. With the infused water in a saucepan, I once again brought it over a low heat so as not to burn the colour away. I then added the sugar and stirred until it was all dissolved, by which point the mixture was a little thicker, but still runny. I removed the pan from the heat, and poured the liquid into a sterilised jar. At this point, the syrup looked quite blue – but here’s where the magic happens!

And voila! (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.) This syrup is a lovely condiment to anything sweet, especially pancakes or crepes. Keep it in the fridge to keep it fresh, although with the sugar, it should preserve pretty well and have a similarly long life as jam. I cannot promise it would remedy cancer (as some folk beliefs suggest; see Vickery), or cure grief, but it was certainly a very mindful project, with a comforting and yummy end result!

The books I have explored for this post:

  • Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker (can be bought here)
  • Plant Lore and Legend, Ruth Binney (can be bought here)
  • Botanical Curses and Poisons, Fez Inkwright (can be bought here)
  • The Secret Language of Flowers, Samantha Gray (can be bought here)
  • Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees, Ernst and Joanna Lehner (can be bought here)
  • Vickery’s Folk Flora, Roy Vickery (can be bought here)

For more Folkdays content, see my blog.

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