A Homebody's Guide to Common Blue Violets
Pretty, old-fashioned, picturesque. All are good descriptors of the common blue violet, Viola sororia.
Edible, useful, and (sometimes) invasive are also apt descriptors, as is cheering, for common blue violets are harbingers of spring.
In late winter, when hellebore blooms, zoysia grass is still straw-like, and few trees are in bud, clumps of common violets emerge from the cold, damp ground. By March, they are in bloom alongside forsythia and narcissus, contributing bright pops of purple to landscapes long into June.
This article will break down how to grow and care for these wonderful plants, as well as provide information on potential projects and recipes you can use to fully enjoy their offerings.
Viola sororia prefers moist, shaded soil and grows wild in swamps, thickets, and damp woodlands. Although it will grow in clay, it thrives in moist, loamy ground and can become invasive.
In the rich, moist soil of our front flowerbeds, clumps of common violets often emerge in unwanted places: among the roots of other herbaceous emergents, between the stone edging, and around rose bush canes.
Removing them can be difficult. Often, I dig up the entire mass of intertwined plants and pick out the fleshy roots and threads of Viola sororia by hand. Even then, I usually miss a few. It is tedious work.
Viola sororia has many names in addition to common blue violet: Confederate violet, dooryard violet, Florida violet, hooded violet, meadow violet, Missouri violet, purple violet, sister violet, wood violet, and woolly blue violet.
No matter what they are called, these plants produce sweet-smelling flowers that are good to eat. Their leaves are also edible and contain large amounts of vitamin A and C.
Each violet blooms on its own leafless stem from a clump of heart-shaped leaves. At the top, the stem hooks so that each flower face appears to be modestly looking downward. Fine white "hairs" in the throat of the flowers create a "woolly" appearance.
Violets smell like burnt sugar cubes that have been dipped in lemon and velvet.— Diane Ackerman, American poet
How to Propagate Viola Sororia
There are a few different ways to propagate violets, some of which can happen even without your involvement.
Like irises and canna lilies, common blue violets grow on rhizomes, fleshy horizontal roots that spread laterally just beneath the surface of the soil to produce clones.
If conditions are optimum—that is, moist, loamy, and shady—the clones will form large colonies. For this reason, the common blue violet is good ground cover for moist areas in partial shade.
One way to propagate Viola sororia is to divide colonies and then transplant the clumps.
Another way to propagate them is to dig up the rhizomes. Cut them into sections, each with an eye or bud, and replant them shallowly, at the depth they originally grew.
Common blue violets also grow readily from seed in moist, rich, shaded soil and are prodigious self-seeders—sometimes too much so.
As the growing season progresses and more plants emerge in our flowerbeds, I frequently find myself digging out clumps of Viola sororia and inadvertently spreading their seed.
The seedheads turn light beige as they dry and have a tendency to explode when disturbed, sending seed up and out from the plant, and more than once, I've gotten a face full of them while weeding.
Little Presents in Your Clothes
Pass through a colony of blue violets, and you'll likely find violet seeds in your pant cuffs and shoes.
Common blue violets are eminently edible by humans and creatures alike.
Birds are attracted to their seeds and rabbits to their leaves and flowers. Deer sometimes munch on them, too, though they prefer the violet's cousin pansy, Viola tricolor.
Bees, butterflies, and skipperjacks love violets for their nectar. But the fritillary butterfly loves them most of all.
For both meadow and great spangled fritillaries, violets are the host plant. In fact, some fritillaries synchronize their life cycle with that of violets so that they have plenty to feed upon during their larval stage.
The fritillary butterfly mates in summer like butterflies do, but females wait until late summer to lay eggs. In fall, when caterpillars emerge from the eggs, they eat their shells for sustenance over the winter and then become inactive until early spring—when violets are at their peak and there is plenty for them to eat (Stokes and Williams 77).
Adding a substantial patch (at least a square foot) of Viola sororia to the landscape will provide a habitat for fritillary butterflies. As noted above, blue violets are easy to grow if the locale is right (shaded, moist, and rich) and easy to propagate by seed, transplant, and division.
Cleaning Violets for Consumption
Southern Living recommends "washing [edible flowers] gently in a large bowl of cold water and letting them air dry on a paper towel" before consuming them ("10 Best Edible Flowers").
Gardener Sara Raven demonstrates a more thorough cleaning method involving a salad spinner in the video below. If you have a spinner, use Raven's method. It's much more effective in removing frass (insect poo) and eggs from flowers and greens.
Much like the butterfly garden above, the projects below call for violets that are uncontaminated by pesticides.
Kitchen and Beauty Projects for Homebodies
Violet leaves and flowers make lovely garnishes and are healthy additions to spring salads.
The flowers are also pretty in ice cubes and ice rings, and they give iced cakes and cupcakes a sweet, old-fashioned appearance.
Blue Violet Sugar Cookies Recipe
To make blue violet sugar cookies, follow your favorite sugar cookie recipe or feel free to use this one, which is a modification of a recipe from Domino Sugar.
You could also use a shortbread, lemon thin, almond cookie, or other roll-out cookie dough recipe.
Prior to baking, center a clean violet flower on each cookie cut-out. Rebecca Desnos, creator of the British gardening journal Plants Are Magic, recommends placing wax paper over the cookies and gently pressing the violets into the dough with a rolling pin (43). You could also use the back of a spoon or your fingers.
Yield: 24 cookies
- 24 clean Viola sororia flowers
- 2 cups all-purpose flour + a little more for rolling
- 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 cup Domino Less-Processed Golden Sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- Collect and clean 24 Viola sororia flowers. (If you have no experience cleaning fresh flowers or greens, scroll up for instructions.)
- Place the clean violets on a damp paper towel, then put them in a lidded bowl or pot, and refrigerator until use. (They will keep up to a week.)
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.
- In a large bowl, cream room-temperature butter and sugar at medium speed for two minutes or until sugar is well incorporated. Add egg, vanilla, and lemon juice. Beat another minute. Fold in the dry ingredients.
- Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness on a floured surface, and cut it into shapes (rounds are pretty) using a cookie cutter.
- If making violet sugar cookies, place a single washed violet flower in the center of each cookie. Cover the cookies with parchment paper and gently press the violets into the dough using the back of spoon, a rolling pin, or your fingers.
- Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes. The violets will shrink a bit during the baking process but will taste just fine.
Blue Violet Body Oil Recipe
Rich with violets? This project is for you.
- 1 small clip-top jam jar or Kilner jar
- 1/4 cup dried violets
- 3.5 ounces of good quality almond, sunflower, or olive oil
- Fine-meshed sieve
- Small decorative bottles, preferably tinted
- Dry the violet flowers in batches in the microwave per the directions in the video below. Each batch will take 90 seconds.
- Place the dried violets in the jar.
- Pour oil over the violets. (There should be very little room left in the jar.)
- Place the jar in a sunny window during the day and inside a cool cupboard at night for three weeks.
- At the end of the third week, strain the oil. It's ready to use.
- Place the strained oil in tinted bottles.
- Store in a dark, cool place.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Jill Spencer