By El Lower, Michigan Sea Grant GLANSIS research associate
Spring wildflowers are one of the greatest joys of this time of year here in the Great Lakes. In addition to being beautiful, many of them are edible as well, including some you can find in your own backyard!
Wood violets (Viola sororia), also known as common blue violets, are a lovely native plant known for their purple blossoms and delicate aroma, and have traditionally been used as flavoring and decoration in drinks and sweets for centuries. They also have a fun scientific property: they can be used as a pH indicator! Like red cabbage and other purple plants, these flowers contain anthocyanins, water-soluble pigments that turn pink in the presence of acid, like vinegar, and bluish-green in the presence of a base, like baking soda. This neat chemical phenomenon lends itself to a fun party trick: you can use violet-infused simple syrup to make color-changing homemade pink lemonade! It’s also delicious when added to cocktails or as a sweetener for tea.
Some patches of violets have a stronger floral aroma than others – if you find some that don’t seem to smell like much, try adding a little dried culinary lavender and/or a few dashes of rosewater to your simple syrup. The color change will work regardless!
There are a number of closely-related violet species native to the Great Lakes, all of which are edible, but as with all foraged foods, check with a field guide to make sure you have a positive ID. Harvest any flowers you intend to use away from roads or areas where pesticide is applied, and be sure to never take more than half the flowers from a given patch: this species is popular with pollinators, too, including many butterflies. While violets are sometimes considered a weed in grassy lawns, encouraging their growth will provide you with cheerful, low-maintenance native ground cover that helps support a healthy ecosystem – and can provide you with sweet treats to share with your friends and family, too.
Violet simple syrup
1 cup freshly-picked violets, or as many as will fit into a standard mason jar
1 cup boiling water
2 cups white sugar
A pinch of dried culinary lavender buds or a capful of rosewater (optional)
- Rinse your violets well, then pack into a mason jar. Add the optional dried lavender if you wish, then fill the jar with a cup of boiling water to extract the color and flavor. Allow the jar to cool and then refrigerate for 24 hours.
- The next day, pour the infused water into a small saucepan, straining out the flowers with a fine-mesh sieve. Add two cups of sugar, bring the mixture to a boil, and then turn the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Pour the syrup into a clean jar, allow to cool, add the optional rosewater, and refrigerate. The simple syrup will keep in the fridge for several months and is excellent added to lemonade, tea, cocktails, or baked goods!