As everybody knows, violets are blue—except when they are pink, or white, or mauve, or white tinged with lavender. This is what I learned after tilling the seven-foot-wide planting strip stretching the width of our city lot between the sidewalk and the curb.
I don’t know how many decades the seeds of Viola odorata had lain dormant under the grass and moss that covered this strip, but after brief exposure to the sun the seeds sprouted through several inches of bark mulch, and soon mounds of dark green, heart-shaped leaves formed a ground cover around the shrubs and larger perennials that I had planted.
That was last summer. A couple of weeks ago the violets began blooming, and now I have only to open the front door to fill my head with their unique sweet scent.
But few of my violet plants produce blue flowers. Shades of pink predominate in the parking strip, and where I’ve torn up parts of the shaded, mossy back lawn I’m finding white and blue-white violets.
In Europe and Asia, the homeland of the sweet violet, odd colors apparently arose spontaneously. Beginning in the nineteenth century, breeders named and propagated selections they particularly liked. The seeds must have sold widely. I imagine a long-ago resident of my house tearing open a packet of mixed-color violet seeds, sprinkling them up and down the planting strip, and tossing the leftovers into the backyard. The plants would have spread by seed and by rhizome until someone tore them up and planted lawn in their place. In recent decades, broad-leaf herbicides probably kept the violets from returning.
Seeds of ordinary blue violets are still available from many sources, but only a few suppliers sell seeds of old cultivars—Reine de Neiges (white, from Swallowtail Garden Seeds), Queen Charlotte (blue and white, from Hazzard’s Seeds), and the Czar (blue, from both Swallowtail and Hazzard’s). At least one nursery, Valleybrook Gardens of British Columbia, is still breeding violets; Valleybrook sells its Classy Pink, Intense Blue, and Bridewhite violets as potted plants to garden centers in Canada and along both U.S. coasts.
Maybe you wonder who would pay for a potted weed. Violets, after all, can be invasive. But even today some people take their violets so seriously that they join organizations to study, celebrate, and promote the little plants. The U.S. has its American Violet Society, and France Les Amis de la Violette. There is even an International Violet Conference.
I suspect that these violet aficionados fuss mainly over the appearance of the blossoms. I focus instead on the plant’s uses. Not only are violets among the earliest garden flowers to bloom, and not only are they fragrant. Since they don’t much object to mowing, they are an attractive addition to a shady lawn. The fresh blossoms are lovely in a salad, and they can be crystallized for decorating desserts. The dried blossoms and leaves, in a tisane, are said to soothe headaches and relieve insomnia. Violet liqueur is essential for cocktails such as the Aviator, and violet syrup can be a pleasant coloring and flavoring for white or sparkling wine, meringues, and ices.
A modern use for violets—because it requires added pectin—is violet jelly. High-methoxyl pectin, the regular kind, requires acid for gelling, and the acid I add comes from lemon juice.* Lemon juice also enhances the flavor of the jelly, and it has another effect, one that might impress your children: A little lemon transforms violet “juice” from the deep blue of blue violets to a pinker shade, nearly as pink as some of my pink violets.
Last week I decided to make violet jelly using only blue violets and to leave all the pink blooms alone. I don’t know what color jelly pink violets would make.I will try that experiment one of these days.
Much of the violet aroma is sadly lost in cooking, but if you start out with plenty of blossoms you will produce a jelly that is intensely flavorful as well as gorgeous.
When you pick your violets, you needn’t remove the green calyx at the base of each flower. Even a bit of stem here and there won’t hurt your jelly.
In this recipe I’ve used Ball’s “Classic” pectin because I had some on hand, not because I favor it. You can substitute another brand, but you may need to adjust the method according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Note that when you strain your violet “juice” you can safely squeeze the jelly bag without making the juice cloudy.
4 cups blue violets
2 cups water, boiled and then left to cool for about 2 minutes
3 tablespoons strained lemon juice
3 tablespoons Ball “Classic” pectin
1½ cups sugar
Put the violets into a bowl (I use a quart glass measure), and pour the water over them. Cover the bowl, and let it sit at room temperature overnight.
In the morning, strain the liquid through a jelly bag. Squeeze the bag to extract the last of the blue liquid. Add a little water, if needed, to equal 2 cups.
Stir the lemon juice into the violet liquid. The liquid will turn a pinker shade. Pour the liquid into a preserving pan. Gradually sprinkle the pectin over, and stir it in. Bring the mixture to a full boil, and immediately add the sugar. Bring the mixture back to a boil. Boil it for 1 minute.
Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the syrup into sterilized ½- or ¼-pint mason jars. Add two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.
Makes 1¼ pints
*Low-methoxyl pectin requires no acid for gelling, but in my experience this pectin produces cloudy jelly. Also, low-methoxyl pectin is usually used to produce low-sugar products (you can identify it in stores by phrases like “for low- or no-sugar jam”). Keep in mind that if your jelly is low in both sugar and acid it is not safe to eat.