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The Multi-Talented Common Violet

We seem to have wildflowers on the brain here at Milestone Press. This may be because Jim Parham is nearing the end of a five-year book project titled Wildflower Walks & Hikes: North Carolina Mountains, due out next year. But the other reason is that spring is arriving here in the Southern Appalachians, and the first wildflowers are showing their faces. Very few ephemerals have poked through the leaf litter so far, but a few, like trailing arbutus and violets, are already brightening the trail.

Arbutus belongs to the heath family and typically lives the woods, but you’ll see violets in many more places. Violet is another hardy plant that seems to thrive most anywhere and braves the temperature and weather changes of early spring with ease. Not only that, it comes in different colors. Take a look and you’ll see common violets in white, lavender, deep purple, and a mix of white and lavender, known to some as Confederate violets.

One wildflower guide we consulted notes in its description of the common blue violet that “Violets hybridize freely and it is difficult to identify them with certainty.” Generally speaking, though, common varieties of violets have glossy, green, heart-shaped leaves and  the blooms have five rounded petals. Their slender fleshy stems originate in rhizomes, which may be one reason why Americans who consider them weeds have such a hard time getting them out of their lawns. Violets bloom from early to late spring and have virtually no scent.

Not everyone is aware that violets are edible, and even medicinal. Pastry cooks encrust them with superfine sugar; they are prized as cake decorations. In the Middle East, violet syrups are used to flavor sherbets. The slightly sweet leaves are rich in vitamins C and A, and add texture and flavor to salads. And herbalists use them to make tinctures and other remedies said to purify the blood and strengthen the urinary and digestive tracts. The rhizomes, however, are known to be toxic in large doses.


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