My daughter and I set out with our herb baskets to find violets the other day. They bloom a bit late in our climate, rarely emerging until the end of March and often lasting into May. Violets are shy and they often don't grow in large quantity but they are delicious and full of nutrients. You also don't have to feel bad about picking every one you find, because the purple violet blossoms of spring are not "true flowers" in that they don't produce the seed of the plant. Picking them actually helps the plant produce more.
As we walked along the weedy track behind our house we adapted this little ditty from a similar one in Herbal Roots magazine to the tune of the song Mulberry Bush.
O, violets sweet and shy, sweet and shy, sweet and shy.
O, violets sweet and shy, where shall we find you?
The question was meant quite seriously. My daughter had never been violet hunting before and I am legally blind, so I wasn't sure this was going to work. But as soon as we had sung the the song through one time we found a good patch of violets. We picked the flowers and leaves carefully, in order to get plenty of stem (important for making candied violets later) and to avoid harming the plant or pulling it up.
We weren't able to find enough violets to make violet syrup for coughs and sore throats, as I'd hoped. But we did find enough to make candied violets and put some on a pretty spring salad. My daughter, who is six and has a sweet tooth, was surprised at how delicious violets are. I suppose being my kid, she's used to having to take some bitter herbal medicines. But violets are mild and sweet enough that even the pickiest kid should be happy to eat them on a salad and they are packed full of vitamins.
We returned home after our expedition and decided to try a candied-violet recipe I had seen in several different places. My luck with trying strange recipes entirely from books isn't that great. I do better if someone experienced does it with me the first time. But I was desperate. As I said, my daughter has a sweet tooth. She also appears to have particularly severe form of the "food coloring reaction." I know there is a bit of controversy around this, but anyone who doesn't believe that food coloring causes strange reactions in kids only needs to be around my daughter once after she's had food coloring (or corn syrup or certain packaged foods like potato chips). Within a few hours, she will start to act increasingly impulsive and erratic until her frenzy climaxes, usually with her shaking and crying uncontrollably on my lap for a few hours.
The thing is that my daughter also loves pretty, flowery, fairy-like things and she desperately wants to have decorated cakes. I have been experimenting with natural food dies to make pretty cakes. I can make a pretty good pink frosting with beet or blackberry juice mixed into a cream cheese frosting, but it isn't as easy to mold and decorate as corn-syrup-based frosting with food coloring. And my daughter really, really, really wants colored flowers on cakes. Hence my motivation to try candied violets.
We got everything out and sat down with some trepidation, and for once, the recipe went just as advertised. Here's the idea:
1. To prepare: Pick violet flowers with long stems. Beat an egg white. Cover a cookie sheet with wax paper. Buy or grind extra-fine sugar. This is the tricky part I think. Fine sugar is not the same as powdered sugar. Powdered sugar would probably turn your candied violets all white and you wouldn't be able to see their beautiful color. It also might not be enough to preserve them. You can buy extra-fine sugar or you can grind your own with a mortar and pestle from regular sugar.
2. Holding the stem of a violet, dip the bloom into the egg white. Use a clean paint brush to coat the flower entirely with egg white, on the front and back of every leaf.
3. Dip the flower into a saucer of fine sugar and sprinkle more on top of it. Again, coat it well on all sides.
4. Carefully arrange the blossom on a cookie sheet covered with wax paper. Use a toothpick to gently unfold the petals, so that the flower looks pretty. It will dry that way.
5. Put the cookie sheet full of candied flowers into the oven on the lowest setting (50 degrees Celsius or 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and let them dry for a couple of hours.
6. Once the candied violets are entirely dry, save them in an airtight container. They are supposed to last quite awhile but they are better within a few weeks. The main thing is that they are a beautiful, natural alternative to harmful food coloring and corn syrup cake decorations. And they taste A LOT better. I was surprised to find that the flavor of the flower is very pleasant and noticeable through the sugar.
Violets can also be used medicinally as a syrup for coughs and sore throats. A warm compress of violets can be helpful on scrapes and bruises. Make a strong infusion (tea) and soak a clean cloth in it. Then put the cloth still warm, on the effected area. There are reports of fresh violet juice and strong infusions being used to effectively treat throat cancer. There are compounds in violets that may be helpful in fighting cancer, but this hasn't been tested enough. What we do know is that violets are edible. You can put them on salad to make it look beautiful, add delicious flavor and bring in a springtime shot of vitamins.