Violet Foraging

by Sarah Owens

The Violet by Jane Taylor

Down in a green and shady bed 
A modest violet grew;
Its stalk was bent, it hung its head,
As if to hide from view. 

And yet it was a lovely flower,
Its colors bright and fair;
It might have graced a rosy bower,
Instead of hiding there.

Yet there it was content to bloom,
In modest tints arrayed;
And there diffused a sweet perfume,
Within the silent shade.

Then let me to the valley go,
This pretty flower to see;
That I may also learn to grow
In sweet humility. 

Making syrups from floral bounty is one of my favorite ways to celebrate the seasons.  In the rush of spring, it is easy to miss the window for violet picking.  Now that the sun is finally showing itself amidst a lingering crisp air and the trees are revealing their displays of pink, white, and chartreuse despite April snow showers, I am setting foot in one of the most expansive landscapes of Brooklyn: The Greenwood Cemetery. 

Greenwood Cemetery 

Greenwood Cemetery 

Founded in 1838, these 478 aces are somewhat of a haven for Brooklynites in my neighborhood, with large specimens of trees and quiet sweeping views of the harbor.  I had been meaning all week to wander around at work looking for violets, the humble denizens of spring.  But as is usually the case when doing what you love as a career, a flurry of garden tasks often outweigh the chance to enjoy the nuances of ones labor.  So on a particularly sunny Saturday, I set foot along the botanically named paths of Greenwood looking for little purple blossoms. Elevated and a bit colder than many other parts of the borough, I was surprised to find that I was...early?!  There were carpets of little heart-shaped leaves covering the ground under the stately ash trees but their blossoms were still quite shy.  

Fraxinus americana  or the white ash in full bloom, buzzing with bumble bee activity!

Fraxinus americana or the white ash in full bloom, buzzing with bumble bee activity!

Sure enough however, on the south-facing slopes nestled against the heat from the gravestones, were the first violets!  Waving their heads in the sunshine under the magnolias and ash trees in full bloom, I set to work trying to collect as many as I could, being mindful to leave a few in good wildcrafting practice. Violets are promiscuous little buggers, proliferating by seed as well as thuggish root systems, but it is always a good idea to try and find balance in collecting.  

Viola papilionacea  responding to the warmth of the south-facing sun.

Viola papilionacea responding to the warmth of the south-facing sun.

I collected a few cups in a little bag on ice and returned home after visiting one of the many delicious and authentic Mexican joints of Sunset Park.  After scarfing my tacos placeros de longaniza, I set to work cleaning the blossoms.  Cleaning foraged flowers is a meditative activity that was perfect for my typical Saturday post-baking-spree daze.  

Cleaning violet flowers, necessary for making syrup.

Cleaning violet flowers, necessary for making syrup.

After removing their little green pips, I was left with only about a cup of petals.  No matter, it was enough to justify making syrup for a cake I had in mind.  I poured boiling water over them and left to soak overnight.  The next day I added sugar and heated in a bain marie until the syrup was formed.  

Violet blossoms soaking in a bath of hot water.

Violet blossoms soaking in a bath of hot water.

The result is a beautiful liquid perfect for adding to icing, mixing in cocktails, or pouring over panna cotta.  

Viola Syrup Recipe

15 g cleaned Viola petals
150 g boiling water
150 g caster sugar
1 ts. lemon juice

Collect and clean about a cup of flowers and place in a heat-proof bowl.  Boil the water and pour over petals. Cover and allow to sit overnight or for up to 24 hours.

In a bain marie, place petals, water, and sugar to taste and heat until dissolved.  Strain into a sterilized jar and add lemon to encourage a more lively hue.  Store in refrigerator for 2-3 weeks.       


Viola  syrup with edible henbit and pepperweed. 

Viola syrup with edible henbit and pepperweed.