Renegade patches of snow still linger in the forest’s darkest spots when the first violets of the season nudge their blossoms above ground. I am no botanist, but even I can identify these little bursts of purple and blue with their heart-shaped leaves. And I have come to know that the advent of violets means spring has arrived – not a false burst of warm weather between late winter storms, but the real thing. By the time the later-blooming yellow and white violets are out, I’m hiking in shorts.
I love violets for their faithful promise of the new season, for their delicate yet sturdy beauty in a still largely barren landscape. But I love them even more because they’re edible. On spring hikes I fill my pockets with violets and throw them into any number of dishes when I get home. A violet’s flavor is subtle, just a hint of sweetness, but visually they turn the simplest dish into a celebration of spring.
After a quick rinse and a whirl in the salad spinner, violets can give a pop to salads (their leaves are packed with vitamins A and C). Their blossoms can brighten butter (chop in the flowers using a food processor) and sweeten lemonade (first crush the petals into the sugar).
A rule of thumb for cooking with violets: the deeper purple the flower, the sweeter its flavor. When you forage for violets bring along a field guide so you can be certain that what you’re picking is indeed a violet (see “Meet Violet” to get to know our Northern Michigan varieties) and make sure your violet patch is pesticide free. Also, remember that picking wildflowers on state, federal or conservancy land is a no-no.
If foraging seems too complicated, growing your own violets is a breeze. Most nurseries carry several varieties. Happy picking – and eating.
This article was first published in April 2005, and was updated for the web February 2008.