The Demure Woodland Gem – Sweet Violet

Sweet Violet or Viola odorata is one of the earliest native wild plants to flower and can be found from early February onwards.

A low lying dweller of the woodland floor, this delicate and unobtrusive wild flower could so easily be overlooked, but to do so would be a deprivation to the senses.

Gently spreading patches of violets provide much awaited colour towards the end of winter ranging in gentle hues of white, through to deep purple amidst glossy green, heart shaped leaves.

These beautiful flowers bring colour to the emerging spring woodland floor. Cohabiting with the tenderest new cleavers (Galium aparine) stems and bold yellow aconite, violet displays the daintiest exquisite blooms.

Habit and Cultivation

There are over 200 species found throughout the world belonging to the violet family  violaceae. Sweet violet or Viola odorata, a eurasian native,is an interesting although somewhat contrary plant in habit.

Sweet Violet
It highly regarded by the Greeks and Romans for its fragrance and medicinal properties

Although the flowers are constructed for bees to collect the plentiful nectar, the flowers have bloomed by the time the bees arrive so are rarely pollinated. Another violet quirk is their habit of repeat flowering in the autumn producing distinctly different flowers.

Read More: A Simple Guide to the Wildflowers of Britain’s Meadows

 Violets are woodland dwellers preferring the dappled shade, but will appear on wasteland, verges and riverbanks. The pretty petals droop, overshadowed by large leaves, a habit understood to be a protective mechanism against insects and debris.

Violets are extremely sensitive to pollution and are unlikely to be found near towns as their breathing mechanism is soon overwhelmed by small particles. This most delicate of flowers eventually emerges from the protective leaf canopy and stands proud and upright to proffer a ripened seed.

Ants aid distribution of violet seeds but violet often reproduces by sending out runners from her roots.

Violets, although highly desirable additions to any flower bed, are not the easiest flowers to grow but demand has led to the cultivation of many successful and award winning cultivars.

Somewhat fussy, violets dislike overcrowding and require annual renewal to avoid becoming a clump of leaves devoid of flowers. They require protection from the summer sun but will not tolerate heavy shade, and in autumn they seek full exposure to the diminishing sunlight.

Violets in History and Art

The origins of the name violet are to be found in ancient Greece, violet is a diminutive of the Latin word viola. The Greek name Ione means violet and relates to the myth of the nereid Io.

Sweet Violets
Sweet Violets Viola odorata growing along the old Braintree to Bishop’s Stortford Railway. Image Credit: Glyn Baker

Legend tells how Jupiter changed his beloved Io into a white heifer fearing the jealousy of Juno who was both his sister and wife (sounds complicated!).

Violet flowers emerge as food for the heifer to which he then gives her name. We can see how Io relates to the naming of the violet coloured element iodine.

Read More: Colours From the Countryside, Dyes Derived from Plants

Another suggestion for the etymology of the name violet is that it derives from the latin vias meaning wayside.

Associations with sex and love are attributed to the alluring violet scent and it is said that violet was one of the floral emblems of the goddess Aphrodite.

Violet has over time acquired a reputation for representing themes of lesbian love in literature. In ancient Greece she appears in the works of a Greek poet named Sapho writing in the 6th century BC.

Asphodel Meadow

A native of the island of Lesbos, Sapho describes love between women adorned with violet garlands. A similar theme is found in Edouard Bourdet’s play ‘The Captive’ where a bouquet of violets is sent by one female character to another.

There is mention of violets by Homer in ‘Asphodel Meadow’ which describes Persephone’s meadow. She herself is engaged in the activity of collecting violet flowers when an enamored Pluto draws her down into his underworld.

Sweet Violet
Sweet violet is a hardy, evergreen perennial that grows to a height of 10 – 25 cm

Athenians used violet to moderate anger, a testament to her cooling properties. Virgil suggests violet aids sleep and brings comfort and strength to the heart.

The physician Pliny records prescribing violet in the treatment of gout and recommends a garland of the flowers be placed around the head for the dispersal of wine fumes that may lead to headaches and dizziness.

Read More: Early Spring Plants

Ancient Britons identified the cosmetic properties of violet and steeped the flowers in goats milk for the enhancement of female beauty.


Violet is referred to in some very ancient herbal manuscripts from the 10th century as a treatment for ‘wykked spergis’, an intriguing condition which seems to be lost to time and lacking any modern definition.  

Nicholas Culpepper the famous 17th century herbalist, physician and astronomer describes violet as –

A fine pleasing plant of Venus, of a mild nature, no way harmful”

Napoleon had a penchant for violet flowers, often returning with them earning him the title ‘Caporal La Violette’ and gaining violet emblematic status for the Imperial Napoleonic Party.

When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in 1815, the Sweet Violet became an open symbol of support. 

There are numerous historical and literary references to violet flowers. Frequently violet is associated with death, most poignantly that of the young.

‘The Ecstasy’ by poet John Donne uses violet as a metaphor for strength and regeneration-

A single violet transplant, the strength, the colour, and the size (all which before was poor, and scant) redoubles still, and multiplies”

Shakespeare, like Napoleon, had a soft spot for violets which were one of his favourite flowers. In ‘Twelfth Night’ Orsino compares the sound of a melancholy tune to the fast fading fragrance of violet flowers (Act 1, Scene 1).


This transitory nature perhaps explains the association with death of the young. ‘Hamlet’ is full of flower imagery with Ophelia donning a garland of violets as she sings in the river . Here they are mentioned in her speech following her fathers death-

I would give you some violets but they wither’d all when my father died”

Violets appear frequently in Shakespeare’s sonnets as in his ‘Sonnet 99’-

The forward violet thus did i chide

Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,

If not from my love’s breath?”

Milton too has Aurora “on beds of violets blue” in ‘L’Allegro’ and mentions “The glowing violet” in Lycidas. In ‘Paradise Lost’ violets form part of the verdant gardenscape described –

Mosaic; underfoot the violets”

Other descriptions of violet in literature allude to her association with death such as in Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Wave’, here expressed by the character Louis-

“Death is woven in with the violets”

Artworks of note that depict violet flowers also harness the death symbolism such as Manet’s painting ‘Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets’ (1872), depicting the fellow artist in mourning with a bouquet of violets.

As Shakespeare’s Ophelia sings in the river, soon to become her watery grave, she has a garland of violets around her neck.

This image is represented in the beautiful masterpiece displayed in the Tate  ‘Ophelia’ by John Everett Millais.

Culinary Uses and Perfumery

Aside from understated beauty, that delicate violet petal (yes violets are ‘violet’ not blue!) contrasting with orange centres, there is the unique scent harnessed by the perfumery industry, characteristically sweet, floral and woody.

Violets have long been associated with confectionery for their distinctively sweet and floral taste – violet sugar or ‘violet plate’ was popular in Victorian times and sold in apothecaries.

white Sweet Violet
Viola blanda (Sweet White Violet)

Other culinary uses apart from a simple tea, include using the flower to make pretty ice cubes, as an addition to garnish salad, to make jellies and vinegar. The Romans enjoyed violet wine. Violets are nutritious, containing high levels of vitamins C and A.

Violet vinegar can be freshly made and after only a day’s steeping, the violets give up their hue.

Read More: Plants Lending Their Names to Well-Known Places

Violet, like all medicinal plants, has her own unique character and is traditionally associated with shyness, hence the term ‘shrinking violet’. This characterisation is because the beautiful blooms often appear curled, facing downwards as if she were hiding her face from us.

Violets do not scream for our attention like other more showy flowers, their qualities appeal to the more sensitive eye.

Interestingly the ability of a human to smell the violet scent varies due to a chemical called ‘ionone’ which temporarily can desensitize human nose receptors preventing scent detection.

Violet is a cool, moist, calming and hydrating plant – these characteristics relate to the effect the plant generally has on the body and the skin.

Skincare use

As a mucilaginous plant, violet is demulcent (moisturising) and therefore very suitable for dry skin. A preparation containing violet would be calming and anti-inflammatory.

Violet contains salicylic acid which gives her soothing and healing qualities and also the ability to dissolve abnormal skin cells. A salve made from violet would be an excellent wound healer and burns treatment.

Medicinal Use

Violet leaves and flowers can be infused as a tea, in oils and vinegar or taken in tincture form, usually with the guidance of a medical herbalist.

Anti inflammatory due to her salicylic acid content (the chemical synthesized to produce aspirin), Violet can help relieve headaches and insomnia.

During the Middle Ages, the Sweet Violet was cultivated in monastery gardens for its medicinal uses.

The flower when infused soothes stomach inflammation and makes an excellent gargle for sore throats. A poultice of violet would  aid swollen glands.

The alkaloid violin found in her roots provides an expectorant action making violet a lovely addition to a cough syrup.

Violet vinegar would make a soothing addition to a bath or foot bath, could be used as a hair rinse and is effective for wasp stings and sunburn.

Hepatoprotective qualities (liver protection) are attributed to violet, diuretic properties to increase urine flow, laxative and diaphoretic (aiding elimination through the skin) actions.

Violet is an all round detoxifier which would be beneficial to use as she flowers on the approach to spring.

In contrast to the highly guarded and delicate flower, contained below in the roots are the alkaloids which are extremely powerful chemicals.

Therapeutic Potential

One particular alkaloid violine resembles the drug emetin which is found in the roots of Carapichea ipecacuanha or Ipecacuanha. Violine is strong purgative – when powdered a small dose of forty grains or so would result in a violent emetic (vomit inducing) action.

The cyclotides are incredible peptides found in the whole plant including violacin which is anti tumour (cytotoxic), kills cancer cells and prevents their spread.

Therapeutic potential has been suggested in recent studies involving malignant breast cancer cells; these demonstrated the ability of violet extracts to target and destroy cancerous cells and prevent their colonisation of further tissue (Yousefnia et al, 2020).

Violet is a plant full of contradictions, often hidden from view and even evading detection by scent. She is vulnerable and shy yet fiercely defensive of her flowers until her seeds are ripe.

Exquisitely delicate in detail are her blooms, yet beneath her in the soil below, strong roots forge survival and hold the most potent chemistry. She is synonymous with death but her symbolism features prominently in gestures of love.

 Take time to walk in the woods and appreciate the first awakenings of spring, a glimpse of this discrete flower will raise the spirits and the merest hint of her sweet fragrance will carry with it the promise of spring joys yet to be revealed.

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