Wendy Welch Published

Violets Make Medicine, Munchies And Memories

A fine of purple violets are shown growing in between two stones.
Violets will grow almost anywhere. They are one of the first flowers to grow in Appalachia come spring.
Brandon Tester/Courtesy

This story originally aired in the April 14, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Brandy McCann is a self-taught herbalist from Blacksburg, Virginia, who considers violets a personal gift. She was born in late April, when the flowers typically bloom.

It has always delighted McCann that she was born on Earth Day. When her mother went into the hospital, things were a bit dark and dreary, but when she emerged a week later, violets were in bloom.

“So that’s always been a very special thing to me, when I see the violets blooming, every spring around my birthday, I just feel like it’s such a gift from Mother Nature,” McCann says.

McCann enjoys reciprocating the gift of violets by using them to make presents for friends and family. In her sunny kitchen with a view of the flowers growing in her yard, she demonstrates how to make skin toner.

“I have a jar full of dried violets and I harvested them probably a couple of weeks ago. I let them air dry on a towel and put them in the jar,” McCann says. “And then I have here some jojoba oil, or you can use olive oil, any kind of carrier oil that’s good for the skin. And then I pour the oil and fill the jar, leaving just a tiny bit of headspace and then set a lid on it, and give her a good shake out every day.”

For a month or so, McCann says to keep the infused oil in a clean glass jar away from light, heat and dampness. Then strain out the plant material and keep the oil.

An adult, middle age woman wearing a yellow t-shirt smiles for the camera as she holds up a glass jar with a red lid. She has her hair pulled back into a ponytail and glasses on her head.
Brandy McCann makes skin toner from violets and jojoba oil. She has made gifts from violets for more than a decade.

Photo Credit: Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

That’s one fun project people may want to try with violets, but there are many uses for these flowers. Nica Fraser studied at the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. She teaches her daughters herbalism as part of their homeschool curriculum. One of their projects is making violet lavender sugar. 

Tastes differ, but Fraser suggests one to two tablespoons of culinary dried lavender combined with two cups of sugar is a good base. To this you can add a fourth- to a half-cup or so of dried violets — leaf and flower, not roots. Start with less and add as you go, then blend the mixture until smooth. Taste, then add anything you think it needs more of.

A blender is seen on a wooden countertop. Next to it is a basket full of green herbs.
A blender can be used to make violet sugar. A mortar and pestle will also work.

Photo Credit: Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Learning with violets can be fun, and Fraser particularly likes that the violets add vitamins to the sugar all children love.

“I think per gram, you get about double the dose of vitamin C in a gram of a violet leaf than you do in a gram of an orange. They’re also rich in vitamin A, they’ve got great magnesium content, and they’ve even got calcium in them,” Fraser says.

A little girl with blonde hair, wearing a pink hat, pink long sleeved shirt, jeans, and boots, kneels in the grass and picks violets. Next to her is a glass bowl where she drops petals.
Fraser’s youngest fills a flower bowl for processing back at the house. Fraser has taught her daughters to forage for spring violets, along with other edible flowers.

Photo Credit: Nica Fraser

That high vitamin content is also why Fraser likes to watch her daughters pick flowers during playtime — and consume them.

Of her oldest daughter, she says, “One of her favorite things to do is to know that she can just be walking outside playing, take a break, eat some flowers and keep going.”

Fraser learned to love foraging from her grandmother, who taught her as a child to hunt morels.

“She was actually the person who planted that seed in me, that you could find nourishment out in nature.”

It is a seed Fraser delights to see growing in her children as they forage on the family homestead in southeastern Ohio.

“I get to take my two daughters out into the woods, and I teach them what I know, and they are so very interested,” Fraser says. “They light up … they love taking this in and they retain it. They apply it, they ask questions, and it’s just really, really enjoyable to watch these little budding herbalists run around in the yard every day with their inquisitive minds.”

Those minds have retained a great deal of information, even at their tender ages. Fraser asks her kids whether they should eat violets that grow near poison ivy, and they come up with excellent information.

A bowl of purple violets. A hand props some up for a better angle toward the camera.
Violets are versatile and vibrant.

Photo Credit: Nica Fraser
Two little girls with blonde hair walk away from the camera. One girl is slightly taller than the other. One girl wears a pink and white t-shirt while the other, shorter girl, wears a black t-shirt and maroon pants. Both are wearing sneakers. They are walking in a yard toward a swing set.
Fraser’s daughters head toward a favorite foraging spot. They have been learning about plants during home school lessons with their mother.

Photo Credit: Nica Fraser

“We definitely don’t want to pick it because it will put the oils on from the poison ivy,” the girls reply, more or less in chorus. They add not to pick near busy roads where car exhaust would saturate the petals and leaves, or in a barnyard pasture, because — poop.

Keeping all those caveats in mind, violets are still one of the safest flowers for new foragers because they’re so easy to identify.

An adult woman wearing an open button up shirt covered in flower print smiles for the camera as a small tortoiseshell kitten sits on her shoulder. The woman has short brown hair.
Dr. Beth Shuler and a patient at Powell Valley Animal Hospital. Shuler studied herbal medicine for animals as a supplement to her licensed veterinary practice.

Photo Credit: Powell Valley Animal Hospital

Dr. Beth Shuler, a veterinarian who studied at Purple Moon Herbs and Studies, loves violets.

“They just make me smile. I like that they’re gentle, they’re easy to find,” Shuler says. “It’s so safe and easy to use that you can put it in your cocktail or your salad, but at the same time it’s very strong and powerful enough to help cure cancer.”

Shuler owns Powell Valley Animal Hospital in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and often uses violets in her practice. She says they’re a good herb for breast care in dogs and people.

“Most of the dogs that we would use violets for are dealing with breast cancer, mammary cancer or mastitis,” Shuler says. “We would do a combination of oral treatment with a tincture.”

Violets are also a great cleanser for infected wounds. Shuler’s youngest dog, Sirrus, is about to get a special treat because Shuler wanted the flower power working inside of him. He had cut his foot on some ice, and it was a little bit swollen. 

Or, as Shuler puts it, “he’s got mild lymphatic inflammation up in his axillary lymph node draining from that injured toe. So I’m placing some tincture, violet tincture in ethanol, on a corner of a piece of toast.”

Sirrus chows down. Shuler’s pleased by that, adding that giving dogs toast is not a common thing in her household, since bread is not good for dogs as part of a daily diet.

“But it does act as a very nice absorptive sponge for tinctures to go down easily. And less mess,”

Schuler explains that humans and dogs have multiple lymph nodes; think of them as internal trash cans trying to keep the garbage away. When people get sick, lymph nodes under our arms sometimes swell up and ache. But lymph nodes have no pump. Violets are excellent at breaking up and dispelling lymph from our bodies. Just another reason to love it, in Shuler’s opinion. But also a reason to treat it with respect and not eat too many of them at once.

“The violet is very powerful and easy to find. But again it is not a simple herb,” Shuler says.

In other words, don’t go eat a bunch of violets — or rub them on your dog’s feet — and expect either one of you to feel better right away. Shuler’s dog Sirrus got a few days of tincture toast.

A small, black dog sits patiently on the floor of a kitchen. The little dog wears a collar and tag and looks as if he is about to get a treat. Behind him are wooden cabinets. He is partially sitting on a kitchen mat that reads in wavy letters, "Kitchen."
Sirrus, the youngest of the Shuler/Tester family dogs, is happy to have eaten violet toast live on the radio. He had a mild cut that became inflamed, so Shuler treated him for a few days with violet tincture.

Photo Credit: Brandon Tester

“It’s not a one dose and done,” Shuler says. “These are built up in the body as repetitive use, it’s not an overnight fix.” 

Literally safe enough for small children to swallow as a snack, violets can clean wounds, fight cancer or spruce up a gin and tonic. Violets are nothing if not versatile. 

Two clear glasses being clinked together by two hands. Inside is clear liquid and ice cubes. On top of the ice are violet petals.
Violet gin fizzes are wonderful drinks. Shuler made two for drinking in her back garden, as a celebration of violet versatility.

Photo Credit: Wendy Welch/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
An adult woman and man pose for a selfie on the beach. The sky above them is blue with some clouds far off in the distance. Behind them is blue ocean. Both the man and woman wear sunglasses and are smiling.
Dr. Beth Shuler and her husband Dr. Brandon Tester both took classes held on the North Carolina coast from Purple Moon Herbs and Studies. She is a veterinarian; he is a chiropractor.

Photo Credit: Brandon Tester

For a fun list of things to do with violets, check out Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. Remember, never try a new unidentified plant or medicine without first consulting an expert.


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.