by Leda Meredith
Violets are in full bloom in BK. I love to see their pretty edible flowers in along the shadier paths of Prospect Park. I also love to see their purple blooms and heart-shaped leaves on my salad plate.
Despite the English idiom shrinking violet, there is nothing shy about this plant. As any gardener who has ever had to weed it out knows, violets self seed prolifically and have knobby roots that are a hassle to weed out. In other words, there really isn’t a sustainability issue with harvesting this pretty but tough little plant.
The violet that you’re most likely to encounter growing wild in Brooklyn is the Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia, V. papilionacea). It grows in partially shaded areas throughout our parks and in many brownstone backyards.
Although some Native American tribes used violet roots externally to relieve joint pain, taken internally they are a strong emetic (they’ll make you throw up). Not something you want to include in dinner – stick to the leaves and flowers.
Wild violets produce two kinds of flowers. The showy ones that are so pretty on salads are usually purple with some white near the center, but sometimes they are mostly white. They are about 3/4-inch in diameter, grow on leafless stalks, and have 5 petals. The side petals have white hairs near their bases. Later in the summer the plants produce inconspicuous, self-pollinating, petal-less flowers that eventually become three parted capsules that eject the seeds.
You may notice that the violets you find blooming in Brooklyn don’t really have a smell. The English or Garden Violet, Viola odorata, is the fragrant one that is used to scent and flavor syrups, gums, candies, etc.
Cultivated Viola species are one of the most common flowers included in those edible flower mixes you see at the farmers’ markets, and the wild ones have just as many uses. In addition to sprinkling them fresh on salads and using them as colorful garnishes, violets may be candied and made into syrup.
Heart-shaped violet leaves are a mild, tasty addition to salads. Unlike dandelion and other wild greens, violet leaves never get bitter. They grow in a rosette pattern, meaning all the leafstalks of each perennial plant emerge from the ground at one central point. There are small pointed teeth along the leaf margins.
There is another plant in Brooklyn parks and yards whose leaves look somewhat similar, and that is garlic mustard. But garlic mustard smells like garlic, and violet leaves don’t really have a smell. The flowers are completely different. And once you get to know both plants you’ll notice that garlic mustard leaves have more yellow in their green, the teeth along the margins are rounder, and the veins are less pronounced on the underside of the leaf than violet’s.
Young violet leaves are partially curled up like a scroll. They unfurl their heart-shape as they get bigger. Fully open violet leaves can sometimes be a little stringy, especially later in summer. For salads, I prefer to use the tender, partly curled smaller leaves.
The older, tougher leaves can be used fresh or dried to make a tea that is excellent for calming ticklish coughs and other respiratory ailments.
Dried violet leaves make a mild tea that is good for coughs, congestion, and soothing sore throats. To dry them, bundle the stem ends of 8 – 12 violet leaves and secure them with a rubber band. Hang them somewhere away from direct light or heat. They should be crispy dry in a week. Remove the rubber band and transfer the dried leaves to a covered glass jar.
Candying violet flowers is a classic way to preserve them. To do this, beat an egg white until lightly frothy. Dip each flower in the egg white and then in granulated sugar. Set the candied violets on wax or parchment paper to dry for 24 hours. Use to decorate cakes and other desserts.
Other Edible Flowers in Season Now:
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
This lovely native tree has pink, edible flowers that taste like bean sprouts. The flowers appear before the leaves. Clumps of redbud blossoms often look like they are growing directly from the bark of the small trees. Enjoy redbud flowers raw as a snack, or on salads anytime up until the leave appear.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
The main flush of dandelion flowers is crazy early this year (it usually doesn’t hit full swing until May in BK). The bad news is that means the leaves are already too bitter to be good eats. The good news is dandelion flower wine, dandelion flower fritters, dandelion flower and goat cheese omelets…
Recipe: Dandelion Wine
Makes approximately 3 1/2 bottles of wine
- 2 quarts dandelion flowers, measured before trimming off most of the green calyx and all of the stems (you should have about one quart once you’re done trimming)
- 3/4 lb chopped golden raisins
- 1 1/2 lbs honey
- 3 lemons, juice and zest (not the bitter white inner peel)
- 3 oranges, juice and zest (ditto)
- 1 tsp yeast nutrient or 2 tbsp corn meal
- 4 quarts filtered water
- 1 packet wine yeast or ½ teaspoon baking yeast
- Snip off most of the green calyxes of the flowers. It’s okay if a little of the green goes in. Put the trimmed petals in a non-reactive vessel (no aluminum or iron). Bring the water to a boil and pour over the flower petals. After 2 hours, strain, press and discard petals.
- Bring the strained liquid to a boil. Stir in citrus juice and honey, stirring to dissolve the honey. Add the lemon and orange zest and the chopped raisins. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. When room temperature, stir in yeast nutrient or cornmeal and wine yeast. Cover and leave at room temperature. Stir 3 times daily for 10-14 days.
- Strain into a sanitized one gallon jug and seal with either an airlock (check those online homebrewing supply stores again) or a balloon with a single pinprick in it to allow gasses to escape but keep detrimental bacteria out. After 3 weeks, siphon or carefully pour the liquid into another sanitized jug, If there is more than two inches between the top of the wine and the neck of the bottle, top off with a syrup of equal parts honey and water.
- When wine is clear rather than cloudy, wait 30 days then siphon or carefully pour it into another jug, top up if necessary, and refit airlock or balloon. Repeat this procedure every 3 months for 9 months until almost no sediment is forming on the bottom of the jug any more.
Pour through a funnel into bottles, cork (get a hand-corker from a homebrewing supply company. It is cheap and really worth it. You don’t want corks popping prematurely, do you?), and age for another year before drinking. Patience. This is bottled sunshine.
This recipe originally appeared in Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes. Republished here with permission.