It’s wild violet season, and like many centuries of cooks and gardeners before me, I am out gathering and then putting violets to use in my kitchen. Some folks still prize violets for certain curative and medicinal properties, but I rely on them mostly to add a bit of pizazz to springtime recipes. Here they infuse homemade lemonade with gorgeous color, and, if the variety is scented, a faint, enticing floral flavor. Still, violets have vitamin C and several other beneficial nutrients, so really do contribute more than just their looks!
The charming little woodland and meadow violets, such as the common Viola sororia shown at right below, can serve as eye-catching garnishes and natural color enhancers for all kinds of sweet and savory dishes: See them in a salad and vinaigrette here, and on top of cookies and cupcakes here. Or check out my fun violet pics/tips YouTube video here. Of course, be sure to use only unsprayed, botanically grown blooms. (And note that the African violets sold as houseplants are an entirely different species and are NOT edible.)
Some Medieval herbalists and healers used violets for much more serious purposes than I do: Macer’s Herbal (tenth century) said the Violet was a powerful plant for warding off “wykked sperytis.” Askham’s Herbal (sixteenth century) suggested violets for healing wounds and curing insomnia: “…. for a wound in the head, stampe the leve of Violets with hony and vynegar and playster it to the wounde and it shall heale it. And so for them
that may not slepe for sickenesse, seethe this herbe in water, and at
even let him soke well hys feete in the water to the ancles, whan he
goeth to bed, bind of this herbe to his temples; he shal slepe wel
by the grace of God.”
(Even as late as a century ago violets were still in great demand and widely cultivated to be given as nosegays. For a detailed picture of a New York violet farm in the late 19th century, plus a compelling portrait of the hard life of two women of the era, check out this well-reviewed novel, A Violet Season on Amazon, or check the author’s website @ http://kathyleonardczepiel.com/.)
One characteristic that does make violets seem magical is that they instantly change from dark blue-purple to magenta when combined with lemon juice. Scientists say it’s because the violet color pigments, called anthocyanins, react to a lowered pH from the acid in the juice. It transforms them quite dramatically, as you can see by comparing these two shots here.
At left is the violet-water-sugar infusion before lemon juice was added. The second pic (below) shows exactly the same mixture right after lemon juice went in. (Neither photo has been doctored in any way.) Remarkable, don’t you think?
BTW, if you ever try stirring purchased violet syrup into lemonade the syrup hue will probably not change at all. Commercial violet syrups and liqueurs are almost always tinted with synthetic petrochemical dyes FD&C red #40 and blue #1. These colorants are not affected by a changed pH–so are no fun at all!
It is lots of fun to turn fresh purple violets into a quick infused syrup, then watch the mixture turn fuchsia as lemon juice is swirled in. Children love seeing the magic happen; truthfully, a lot of grownups (like me) do too! And in addition to being so pretty, lemonade made from fresh, squeezed lemons is so much tastier than that readied from canned or bottled juice or lemon powder that you may want to make it even when violets aren’t in season!
The more violets you have and the deeper their shade, the brighter your lemonade will be. But even a modest quantity of petals will lend a pretty pinkish hue. For best color and flavor, use only the petals; pluck them from the green heads and stems before measuring.
3/4 cup water
1/3 to 2/3 cup fresh purple violet petals
4 to 5 tablespoons granulated sugar, to taste
Juice from 2 medium lemons
Fresh violet blooms and leaves or thin lemon slices for garnish, optional
Put water in a 2-cup microwave-safe glass measure or similar-sized heatproof glass container. Microwave on high power for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes just until the water begins to boil. Let stand to cool in the microwave for about 2 minutes; stir in violets and let steep. (Alternatively, place the water in a non-reactive saucepan; bring just to a boil; then stir in violets and set aside to steep about 3 minutes.)
Stir the sugar into the mixture until it dissolves. Let the mixture stand and steep until cooled to room temperature; stir once or twice. Don’t worry if the infusion looks slightly bluish or greenish; this is normal. Stir in the lemon juice; depending on the kind of violets the mixture will turn purple-red or pink. It can be used immediately, or for a more intense color, cover and steep in the refrigerator for 24 hours or up to 3 or 4 days if desired.
At serving time fill two 10 to 12-ounce glasses with ice cubes. Strain the violet-lemon syrup through a very fine sieve, pressing down to extract as much liquid as possible. Pour the sieved syrup over the ice cubes, dividing between the two glasses. Stir until the ice cubes begin to melt and dilute the mixture to form a lemonade. Taste and stir in more fresh lemon juice, or sugar (or honey), or ice cubes, if desired. Garnish the glasses with violets or lemon slices and serve immediately. Makes 2 generous servings.