Viola nephrophylla (Northern Bog Violet)
Three Faces Under A Hood:
The Many Aspects of Violet
Photos & Text by Kiva Rose Hardin
Originally published in Plant Healer’s Herbaria.
Botanical Names: Viola odorata, Viola tricolor, Viola canadensis, Viola yedoensis, and allied species. Properties will vary in intensity based on aromatics, mucilage content, and other constituents.
Common Names: Violet, Pansy, Heartsease (this name is also applied to Prunella vulgaris at time though, so take care when using common names), Three Faces Under a Hood, Sálchuach, Fail Cuach, Love In Idleness, Brog na Cuthaig, Styvmorsviol, Duftveilchen, zi hua di ding
Energetics: Cool, moist
Taste: Sweet, sour, aromatic, slightly bitter
Primary Actions: Demulcent, Lymphatic, Alterative/Clears Heat & Toxins, Diuretic,
Part Used: Flowering aerial parts, for the most part.
To Ease The Heart, To Charm With Beauty, To Warn of Death
Death is woven in with the violets,” said Louis. “Death and again death.”
–Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before, milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Heart’s Ease is one of the first names that comes to many people’s minds when Violet is mentioned, along with its association with calming heartache, evoking love, and bringing joy. The more literary minded may also remember Oberon pours a potion of Love-In-Idleness into Titania’s eyes to cause her to fall in love with the ass-headed Bottom. While modern herbalists, and Americans in general, seem likely to think of Violets as a cheery sign of the arrival of Spring or a symbol of shyness or love, the older history of the plant certainly belies that simple loveliness.
In contrast to modern perspectives, the folklore of the British Isles tells how the dark purple of Violet flowers has long been associated with sadness, death, ill luck, and Violets flowering on one’s land in Autumn was an omen of death. Poetry, paintings, and stories represent Violets in many contradictory manner, but very often there is an air of wistfulness about their description, and a thread of longing woven through the lore. Their delicate blossoms may have been strewed across Gaulish wedding beds, but Violet flowers often cast a shadow across the tender touch of love in traditional ways of seeing. As such, Violets have long been viewed with both anticipation and a sense of foreboding. Despite being a common plant, its appearance can portend a great many things, depending on the weather, the place, the color of the flower, and the time of year.
The Irish name of Three-Faces-Under-A-Hood reflects both the appearance of the flower, and the nature of the plants in folklore, medicine, and magic. The triple aspect of the Violet in love, death, and beauty are threads that appear and reappear throughout stories and European (as well as European-American) ethnobotany. The use of Violets infused in fresh milk and applied to the skin to keep one young and lovely only adds to the bittersweet beauty of this enigmatic wildflower.
Viola nephrophylla (Northern Bog Violet)
A Feral Flower: Violets in the Woods, Garden, & Apothecary
“The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.”
–Tennessee Williams, Camino Real
Despite being labeled with such attributes as shy and shrinking, Violets are often railed about by gardeners as being invasive, pushy, and even a “plant bully.” This seems like something of a demonization of both the native and non-native species of Viola in the US. They are indeed prolific, often spreading by both seed and rhizome, but I would hardly call them bullies based on their hearty nature. Humans sometimes deem them sneaky, because when their more obvious showy flowers aren’t pollinated, they will produce small green flowers that result in pods full of seeds that can be flung from the plant to ensure the continuation of the species. Some people term the Violet’s early Spring showy flowers fake flowers or pseudo-flowers, but this is incorrect. More accurately, some violets, such as V. odorata, bloom so early in the season that there are no pollinators around to pollinate them, and thus the plant has developed a backup plan in the form of secondary green flowers that occur later in the year that self pollinate, and then distribute seeds as a mean of reproduction.
The most well known Violet is the Sweet Violet, Viola odorata, famous for its incredible scent and extensive use in perfumery and cosmetics. However, all Viola species, whether aromatic or not, have healing properties that are well worth exploring. Violets are practically ubiquitous in the temperate world, growing everywhere from the woodlands of Great Britain to weedy lawns in the Northeast United States to the cool upper elevation mixed conifer forests of the American Southwest. Easily recognized and safe enough to eat as a food, it’s often one of the first plants I like to teach folks about when introducing them to herbs.
Strangely enough, while most herbalists will wax poetic about the attributes of other mild, nourishing green herbs such as Chickweed or Dandelion, it can be difficult to find someone who considers themselves an advanced practitioner who takes Violet seriously as a medicine. There are a number of exceptions of course, especially among the more weed oriented clinicians, but I certainly think that this abundant little plant deserves more respect as a medicine and food than it’s generally granted in North American herbalism. I’m inclined to agree with the words of Loyd and Felter:
Probably all the species possess analogous properties; they are undoubtedly more active agents than are generally supposed and deserve further investigation. – King’s American Dispensatory
Viola nephrophylla (Northern Bog Violet)
And shade the violets,
That they may bind the moss in leafy nets.
– John Keats
The scent we most often association with Violet is from the flowers, specifically from the ionones of aromatic species. However, the leaves of many species are also aromatic and widely utilized in perfumery. Viola canadensis, although its flowers are usually only mildly scented at most, can have strongly aromatic leaves. I’ve often found myself sniffing the air when harvesting this species for medicine, absently wondering what that alluring and delicate, yet peppery smell in the air was only to realize it was emanating from the very plant I was harvesting. Intensely green in nature, Violet leaf can be addictive to those with an affinity for it, and I would happily sleep on a mattress stuffed with that particular heart shaped wild river scent. As it is, I’m as likely to create or wear a botanical perfume built around the leaf absolute as I am the flower.
Note that the leafen aromatics can vary widely, from that green, peppery scent to a strong wintergreen odor, all depending on the species and growing environment.
Viola nephrophylla (Northern Bog Violet)
Medicinal Effects & Applications
Initiating Flow: Lymphatic & Heat Moving Properties
Violet works both internally and externally to stimulate sluggish or stuck lymph. Unlike some stronger lymphatics, I’ve never seen Violet cause headaches, hypochondrial pain, or a general feeling of malaise. Instead, it works gently to get things moving while reducing inflammation in the process. It’s a wonderful addition to a formula, or even as a simple, in the treatment of sore, swollen lymph glands during an acute viral infection such as the flu. Its demulcent action combined with the lymphatic stimulation also make it perfect to pair up with the astringent and also anti-inflammatory Rose flower and/or leaf for sore, swollen throats at the onset of cold or flu.
Eczema, boils, acne, and other irritated and inflamed skin conditions, especially when accompanied by signs of constitutional or local dryness, can be a sign of stuck lymph and hot tissues. All respond well to Violet both internally and externally.
The lymphatic moving action of Violet is probably where the plant’s reputation as an anti-cancer agent stems from, and is often paired with Pokeroot (Phytolacca spp.) as an adjunct to mainstream cancer treatments, a formula I have seen help reduce the insidious and unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy.
Tincture, infusion, syrup, elixir etc can all be used for internal lymphatic treatment, and an infused oil is wonderful as a massage oil to gently move sore or sluggish lymph from the outside. It’s common to see Violet infused oil sold as a breast massage oil, but it will work equally well on other stuck and inflamed lymph tissue! I especially love Violet infused oil as a massage oil for wee ones experiencing lymphatic congestion due to its gentle, soothing nature, but it will work well for those of all ages.
Slippery Sweetness: A Soothing Demulcent
The slimy, mucilaginous character of Violet leaves gives it a great many of its healing actions, including the ability reduce the sensations of burning in cystitis and urinary tract infections, and externally lessen the inflammation of eczema and wounds while also assisting in the healing of irritated tissues. Violet’s ability to moisten the mucosa is systemic, and is also very useful in treating a dry, hacking cough where expectoration is scant or difficult.
If desiring these demulcent effects, it’s best to extract the plant in water rather than alcohol, and a tea or infusion made from fresh or dried Violet leaves. This is because the mucilage responsible for the demulcent action is a carbohydrate more efficiently extracted by water than alcohol. Eating Violets as food will work equally well, and most folks will find Violets to be bland, sweet, and very palatable in salads or cooked with other greens.
I’ve noticed that some commercially obtained Violet leaves have less of this property, so be on the lookout for that if you don’t gather your own medicine or need to supplement with another source. It’s easy to check by adding a bit of water to leaf crushed and seeing if it feels slimy between your fingers and stretches into thin strands of mucilage when you pull your fingers back apart. Additionally, some species of Viola, whether cultivated or wild/feral, may contain less mucilage and possibly some less desirable constituents, what you’re looking for a sweet, moist mouthfeel without a prickly sensation in your throat. The slimier the better. Violet has many properties not dependent on its moistening effects, but most of them work better when combined with abundant mucilage.
Violet leaves can also be infused into oil to make a salve or you can even just smush up the fresh leaf to apply directly to the affected area as a poultice. Given the high water content of most Viola species, it usually works best to wilt the leaves first, and then warm infuse them into the chosen fat. A cold infusion of freshly picked leaves is likely to go off in a relatively brief amount of time, similar to Plantain or Comfrey.
The Cooling Stream: Addressing Damp Heat & Infections
Violet excels at clearing damp heat and toxins/infections from the urinary tract and other mucosal tissues. It is one of my most often called about allies for interstitial cystitis where there are heat signs present. It is equally useful in hot, acute cystitis, and even in cases of mild to moderate kidney infections when used alongside other therapies. For simple cystitis, it pairs very well with Cornsilk (Zea mays) for soothing, healing, and relaxing the urinary tract.
These same properties also apply to gut, respiratory, and other mucosa. As mentioned above, Violet syrup or other preparations can be helpful when treating dry, hacking coughs, whether from constitutional/environmental issues, or from a cold or bronchial infection. Pairing it with an efficient anti-spasmodic such as Cherry (Prunus serotina and allied species) can helpful in more spasmodic coughs, and Cherry can also be of help when combined with Violet for gut inflammation related to anxiety/stress and/or food intolerances. Violet, Cherry, and Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) is an elegant formula to soothe spasms, irritation, and tension in both the gut and the respiratory tissues.
Likewise, mucilaginous Violet species have a place in treating gut ulcers and even ulcerative colitis, along with IBS, and other chronic digestive inflammations. Formulate with astringent and more anti-infective herbs according the person’s constitution and energetics of presenting symptoms for best results.
Unclenching the Fist: Hepatic Relaxant
Violet also has a relaxing, opening effect on the liver. It’s lovely combined with Lavender and Rose for a backed up, overheated liver with associated symptoms of sharp hepatic pain, general irritability and an unusually bad temper. It helps to get things flowing and smooth again. This is very important for an organ that has a tendency to get cramped up, tense, and blocked when not happy.
Sudden outbursts of unreasonable anger combined red, inflamed eczema, and ongoing headaches is another common liver pattern that calls for Violet. If the pattern seems stuck, and refuses to move with appropriate treatment, consider adding an aromatic bitter such as a mild Artemisia spp. (A. vulgaris or A. ludoviciana would be good choices) to further lessen inflammation and tension, while promoting energetic movement along with bile flow. If a tense, overheated liver is also inflaming the tendons and triggering issues with eye weakness, try formulating Violet with Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris), and Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp.) in a tincture or infusion.
The River’s Mouth: An Opening Nervine
Violet excels at clearing blockages, whether lymphatic, hepatic, or emotional. It’s a gentle relaxant nervine that allows us sort our way through frustration, anger, and irritability to the wound that lies beneath. In a practical sense, this means that Violet is an excellent nervine to take when grief caused tension or irritability is clouding our perception and thus impeding our ability to heal from the grief. More generally, it’s also a wonderful when combined with Rose or other relaxant nervines for a general calming effect.
Viola spp. have long been used to treat all sorts of headaches, especially those due to tension, sadness, constitutional dryness, or lack of sleep. I find cold infusion or an aromatic flower syrup especially helpful for many headaches. Because of its moistening and overall decongesting actions, it can also prove useful in sinus headaches.
Some folks will say that Violet isn’t a proper nervine, or isn’t strong enough to exert a relaxant effect on the nervous system. I consider that to be too blanket of a statement, and that as with many nervines, much depends on the constitution and overall sensitivity of the individual’s nervous system. Michigan herbalist, Jim McDonald, says:
“Violet is also good for people who react to stress (or perhaps life in general) with rigidity. Violet softens. It inspires flexibility. Some give.”
I find this to be very true, perhaps especially for those who are innately flexible, but where life, trauma, and circumstance have caused a rigid shell to be created around a soft and sensitive heart. I’ve also seen Violet prove useful for autistic folks who find themselves frustrated with mental or emotional rigidity in themselves. In both cases, I prefer aromatic species in the form of a tincture, elixir, honey, or syrup, but find that even the less scented Violets to be useful. Combining with Linden, Rose, or another aromatic relaxant can be beneficial.
Where there’s irritability, muscle tension, and an inability to relax due to tension felt in the gut and head, consider pairing with Vervain (Verbena and Glandularia spp.), Wood Betony (Stachys betonica), and Agrimony (Agrimonia spp.). Another place to consider Violet in children or adults who have difficulty focusing and instead chatter, fidget, cause trouble, or potentially throw fits or start fights. In such a case, consider pairing with Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) or Firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), and possibly with Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.) and/or Milky Oats (Avena spp.) if there’s an underlying nervous exhaustion. Note that this sort of exhaustion is possible, even in children, and is especially likely if there’s been any kind of trauma. This includes the stress of the behavioral modification often applied to the neurodivergent, including those diagnosed with ADHD, Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, and similar neurological differences.
Perhaps think of Viola spp. as able to open up the river’s mouth, undamming a needed opening to allow the full capacity for flow and adaptability. Combine with Monkeyflower (Mimulus spp.) when the capacity for play or frivolity has been lost due to stress, trauma, pain, or self-doubt.
I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful Violet is in formulation, being very amenable to interweaving and complimenting the effects of many other medicines. I would be rather lost without it in my clinical practice for just that reason.
Sweet Greens & Perfumed Tea: Edible Applications
Violet leaf, especially the small, new leaves are delicious in salads, soup, and wherever else you like a sweet, green accent to your meals. The blossoms are likewise mild and pleasant, and make a beautiful addition to many foods, both savory and sweet. Not only do they add nourishment, the leaves can also act a thickener in soups and sauces, and are well worth exploring in all manner of preparations. I like to combine Violet leaves with Sassafras leaves, dried and powdered, in my filé powder for my homemade gumbos.
Aromatic Violet flowers, whether on their own or concentrated into a syrup, liqueur, jelly, or similar. Not everyone is as fanatically fond of the flavor as I am, but I’ll happily admit to being something of a Violet addict. Even if the plant had no medicinal attributes, I would still regularly indulge in Violet perfumed tea, Violet blossom ice cream, Violet cocktails, and even smokey Violet finishing salts! I love to combine Violets with Evergreens in many teas and desserts, and find that Violet, Rose, and Orange Blossom combine exceptionally well in almost any creamy sweet dish, such as a custard, rice pudding, or ice cream.
Cautions & Contra-indications
Almost none for flower/leaf, safe for infants, the elderly, and anyone in delicate health. Clinically, I’m comfortable working with the whole plant (as opposed to isolated constituents) during pregnancy and breastfeeding, even if there are no studies to validate that.
This is a food type herb, the only two concerns I would have are for those who have a very cold, wet constitution already (in which case you can still formulate it with warming or drying herbs to help balance it out) and the variable amount of salicylates, which some folks are sensitive to and avoid.
Similar to what I have already stated, I would consider Violets inappropriate (but not necessarily harmful) in the treatment of chronic, oozing sores or similar external issues that present as cold and wet.
An Exception: The roots and seeds are something of a different medicine, and can be dangerous in large doses. Only work with the seeds and rhizomes/roots if you have proper guidance, training, and/or understanding of how the medicine works and when it would be appropriate.
Viola nephrophylla (Northern Bog Violet)
The Gift of Healing Herbs by Robin Rose Bennett
Herbcraft.org by Jim McDonald
Combining Western Herbs & Chinese Medicine: A Clinical Materia Medica by Jeremy Ross
The Scots Herbal: The Plant Lore of Scotland by Tess Darwin
Irish Wild Plants: Myths, Legends, & Folklore by Niall MacCoitir
Juliet Blankespoor: https://chestnutherbs.com/even-violets-need-a-plan-b/
Juliet Blankespoor: https://chestnutherbs.com/violets-edible-and-medicinal-uses/