Viva Violets!

By Lise Wolff

Everywhere I walk, violets are blooming. Although I can say they are of the Viola genus, I can’t get much more specific as there are about eighty cultivated and/or wild violet species, with innumerable hybrids. Mostly violets spread by runners, although inconspicuous brown flowers growing at ground level produce tiny black seeds which self-pollinate (the flower doesn’t open until the seeds are mature). Amusingly, violets’ little bursts of purple, yellow and white flowers are not for reproduction but simply an energetic expression of happiness.

Although the botanical stuff is interesting and the plant is beautiful, I’d rather talk about the powerhouse of strength it provides. The RDA of Vitamin A is 5,000 IU. In 100 grams violet leaves provide 20,000. Sort of impressive, huh? Vitamin C’s RDA is 75mg. Violet leaves provide 264mg in 100 grams. Lots of nutrition. And I bet you thought it was just pretty. My happiest moments are sitting in a patch of violets and slowly picking the leaves. Very meditative. Like most wild greens, they are particularly sweet and tender in the spring, providing abundant quantities for soup and salad greens year after year.

But as an herbalist my interest in violets really veers toward their medicinal properties. For medicine I pick the leaves later in the summer, when the leaves are larger and have more medicine built into them. By this time they are quite a bit tougher and not particularly edible. Herbals list many uses for violet. Hemorrhoids, varicose veins, tension headaches, nightmares, insomnia, distressed sleep, disinfectant, fungicide, tissue solvent (softens hard skin such as corns and warts), mouth inflammation and lung congestion. Sounds like a cure-all. When I first started learning about herbs I hated reading the herbals because they made lists like that.

What does it really mean? Violets are good for you. They nourish and gently improve the functions of many systems in your body, including the nerves, lungs, reproductive system, liver, gallbladder, digestive and urinary tracts. Many people envision the immune system as a barrier that keeps things out. Yet we are part of the world and both physically and spiritually we must let the world in and work within the world. There has been talk in the scientific community lately about ‘host mediated response’ to illness. The concept is that if we help the body be well the body can keep disease under control. And it appears that it is the mildest of substances, the greens, that help keep the body functioning well. I have a preference for wild greens because they tend to be much more concentrated with things that strengthen the body than greens you can buy. But at least eating green vegetables is a start.

Having addressed the generalities about how violet is good for you, as a practicing herbalist I have to understand what each herb specifically treats very well, most of the time. Usually this happens by stumbling. Years ago I went to dinner with a doctor friend. She mentioned that she had found a lump in her breast, not because she was probing, but because it was so large it stuck out. She had set herself up to have a mammogram the next week. Remembering that, according to Susun Weed, violet leaf “has an affinity for the breasts,” dissolving fibrous tissue, hardened calcium deposits, mastitis and “undiagnosed’ breast lumps, I sent her home with a violet leaf tincture to apply topically and take internally, three drops three times a day.

We met the day before her mammogram. The lump had shrunk so much she had to probe to find it. We both agree it must have been a cyst. The next day she called me from the hospital. They had biopsied and diagnosed it as the fastest growing cell cancer possible and they wanted to operate and remove the breast as well as the lymph nodes. The size of the lump indicated that it must have spread already. She refused treatment seeing the success of violet leaf. A month and a half later she had all sorts of tests done to diagnose the progress of the disease. Nothing anywhere. From there the story goes on but it usually takes an hour to tell verbally. Suffice it to say that strength is often hidden in the mildest of packages.