Common violets, or Viola odorata, are a great, unassuming wild flower, but they have a lot more use than in a bouquet or as something to enjoy on a trail: you can eat them too. For me, violets are one of a lot of greens I pick in the spring, along with sochan, nettles, ramp leaves, and the like. They’re easy to identify, don’t really have any look alikes to be worried about, and can be found just about everywhere, but generally I find violets in areas of partial shade, with rich soil.
Different species and colors
There’s a whole slew of different colors you can collect, but the main wild one I see is purple. Some sources will say that yellow or white species are inedible, but I haven’t had any problem eating any of the species pictured here, tolerances can vary though, so I suggest sampling some of the other colors than the common blue violet in small amounts to make sure they sit well with you.
When is the best time to pick them?
Violets are going to be at their best when they’re young, like just about everything else. You can definitely eat them as the season moves on, but they start to get tough fast.
How do you eat them?
The only thing to know culinarily speaking about violets, from my opinion, is that they can be tough. They’re not so tough that they aren’t good to eat, when very young they’re excellent, but they get chewier faster than many other greens, from my experience.
Given that, most of the time when I collect violet greens, they’re going to be cooked, but when they’re very young I might put them in a salad. Even young, the leaves are a little textural, but mixed in with some other wilting greens, and maybe a little lard or bacon fat, no one will be the wiser, and you can feel good about serving a healthy green that most people only appreciate with their eyes.
A wild substitute for spinach
Lots of comparisons get made between wild cooked greens and spinach, plantain and nettles for example, and to an extent I can agree with nettles (I don’t care for plantain leaves). Violets are another story. After cooking, young violet leaves can get quite tender and soft. They’re hands down the best literal approximation of spinach in wild plant form that I’ve tasted.
Can you eat the flowers?
Yes, but refer to the caveat regarding some of the other colors above if you’re eating them raw. As far as edible flowers go, they have a great smell, but, like most flowers, they’re going to wilt pretty fast, and have a short shelf life. There are methods for preserving them to enjoy throughout the year, the most popular being making violet syrup, or candying by dipping in beaten egg white, dipping in sugar and dehydrating. Candied, or very fresh, the make a great garnish for cakes and sweets for special occasions.
Violet Stem Allergy
Like a number of wild foods, lily shoots for example, some parts of the plant can cause a mild reaction with some people. While I was eating a large amount of these raw, I found, that with violet stems in particular, I’m one of those people. I can eat violet leaves raw in salad as much as I like, but eating stems (which are tough anyway) made my throat hot and uncomfortable, a mild sensation that lasted for about 30 minutes. I assume more people will have an allergy like this, but considering the fact that violet stems are not very appealing raw, I don’t see much to worry about with them. Cooked I can eat the stems just fine. This could be due to the amount of saponins in the stems, but I’m speculating a bit there.