I was in my purple princess phase. I had been to see the new Cinderella movie that just came out and visions of being dressed by little bluebirds danced in my mind. I spent hours drawing princess dresses with birds delicately tying bows and weaving ribbons of blue flowers through long blond hair. I left hair ribbons on my windowsill, just knowing the birds would delicately tie them into bows. When they disappeared, I thought perhaps the birds needed them to decorate their nests. Finally spring came and my mother had a garden full of tiny purple blooms, all fit for a purple princess ensemble. One morning I picked all of them, seeing to it that the stems were long enough to make an opening so each flower had another flower attached to it.
No one told me Mom's homemakers group was coming for a late lunch and a session in flower pounding. They were using violets to press onto squares of muslin, pounding the dye from them onto the cloth, and they were to be there that very day I had used all the violets for my purple princess crown. Their muslin squares were going into a friendship quilt they were planning. I don't remember the purpose of the quilt, though I am sure there was one, but I do remember the event. It was not pretty.
Everybody knows springtime has arrived when the first delicate, fragrant, bluish purple blooms of the sweet violet appear. Sometimes our lawn was covered in a sea of purple, and I was so delighted I could have rolled in them, and probably did a time or two. Spring was in the air, and even the birds sounded happier. Sweet violets have been much admired for more than 2,000 years. Ancient Athenians held the plant in high regard for its power both to moderate anger and to cure insomnia. Some Romans believed its roots, if steeped in vinegar, would cure gout, and added that a garland of violets worn about the head would banish headaches and dizziness. Later the Celts mixed the flowers with goat's milk to make a cosmetic. In the 16th century the English made a syrup of the flowers and used it as a mild laxative for children. They also employed the syrup to treat a number of adult ailments, including epilepsy, pleurisy, and jaundice.
In modern times violet blossoms have been used principally as a coloring agent, as the fragrance in perfumes and in cough syrups. At different times and places, particularly since about 500 B.C. the fresh leaves have been used in poultice form to treat skin cancer, and this belief in violets' efficacy as a cancer cure unfortunately continues to this day, with virtually no scientific proof to back it up.
Viola odorata grows in poor soils usually in sloped shaded meadows and woods. The mountains of southeast Kentucky were an ideal habitat for them, and they are probably the first blooms I could recognize at a very early age. They are native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and are now naturalized in North America. In spite of their beauty, in some places violets are considered invasive.
A creeping perennial, sweet violet reproduces by long stalked rooting runners called stolons. The leaves, produced in rosettes near the ground are heart shaped and slightly downy. Sweetly scented solitary flowers bloom in April through June, and they appear on long stalks. They are generally deep violet in color but may range to rose and white.
Today the plant's chief medicinal use is as an expectorant, although this use has never been validated. The plant has also been used as a diuretic, and this effect has recently been confirmed in animal studies. As with all my articles, I give you this information only as a way of sharing interesting tidbits, and never recommend the medicinal use of a plant without the advice of experts.
I can however, highly recommend a chain of thousands of purple violets as a wonderful purple princess crown. Not only did it cover my head, all my hair, and draped around my lace curtain-clad body as only a mile-long adornment of nature can do, but it also halted the homemakers in the middle of their never-ending chatter and their delicate tasting of Mom's chicken salad complete with walnuts and grapes. The antique lace curtain came from my grandmother's cedar chest and beneath it was one of my mother's long half slips, nothing else. I had wrapped the lace curtain around my shoulders, around my waist a couple of times and with the help of a broach of great antiquity, it was pinned in place. The chain of wrapped violets trailed behind as I tiptoed barefoot to the dining room which enclosed the fair-haired homemakers within the confines of their constant chatter. There was a moment of admiring silence when they as one looked up at me, until Aunt Aldie, unglamourous sourpuss that she was, caught a glimpse of the violets and choked on her chicken salad.
I don't remember that they used the sweet violet for their muslin pounding project that day, unless, of course they used its leaves. If anything, my mother always had a surplus of creative ideas up her sleeve, so no doubt the homemakers had their pounding lesson. If I remember correctly I was pounded quite soundly, too.
Photos are from Plant Files, credits to Htop for the thumbnail, Poppysue for the cluster, and Philomel for the single bloom. Thank you for the use of your excellent photography.
For an enjoyable article on the craft of pounding plants for leaf prints, please see Kathleen Tenpas' article here.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 19, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)