Flower: Violets and Pansies

Yesterday’s musing on African Violets got me to thinking about violets in general. The African Violet, Saintpaulia ionantha, is not a true violet–all of which have the genus name Viola–but it does look a lot like them with its heart-shaped leaves and flowers with two top lobes and three bottom lobes. Since so much of magical herbalism depends upon the appearance of plants (obviously their scents, edibility, and medicinal uses, too!), I figured that common violets would magically have a good bit in common with African violets.  When I turned to Scott Cunningham’s Encyclopedia, I was not disappointed:

Violet (Viola odorata):

Gender:  Feminine
Planet:  Venus
Element:  Water
Powers:  Protection, Luck, Love, Lust, Wishes, Peace, Healing
Magical Uses:  When the flowers are carried they offer protection against “wykked sperytis” and bring changes in luck and fortune.  Mixed with lavender, they are a powerful love stimulant and also arouse lust.  If you gather the first violet in the spring your dearest wish will be granted.  Ancient Greeks wore the violet to calm tempers and to induce sleep.  Violets fashioned into a chaplet and placed on the head cure headaches and dizziness, and the leaves worn in a green sachet help wounds to heal and prevent evil spirits from making the wounds worse.

The two violet groups share a lot of the big particulars, but the violet found in Europe has a lot more specific lore attached.  It did not escape my notice that Cunningham specifically called out only one member of the Viola genus in his Violet description:  Viola odorata, otherwise known as the violet species that held Victorian-era Europe in thrall.  Unlike every other violet species, Viola odorata has a scent, and a fairly beguiling one at that.  One perfumer describes it as “powdery, a little sweet, and decidedly sad.”  It shares a good deal of similarity with iris scents, particularly that of their tubers.  Interestingly,  a component in the scent numbs the receptors in your nose for several minutes. During that time, your sense of smell will be out-of-commission, so you won’t be able to smell anything at all, not even the violet.

Viola odorata is native to Europe and Asia, but has also been introduced to North America and Australasia. It is commonly known as wood violet, sweet violet, English violet, common violet, or garden violet.

Viola odorata is native to Europe and Asia, but has also been introduced to North America and Australia. It is commonly known as wood violet, sweet violet, English violet, common violet, or garden violet.

There’s ample lore surrounding this violet.  In ancient Greece, violets were said to be sprung from the tears of Io, a nymph Zeus turned into a white cow.  Only she could eat them, and they became known as “ion”.  Since the founder of Athens was also named Ion, the city became known as the “violet-crowned city” and violets became an emblem for Athens.  Violets were said to be among the flowers that tempted Persephone away from her nymph companions and allowed Hades to abduct her, and violets grew were Orpheus slept.  In Roman mythology, violets became associated with Venus.  She asked her son, Cupid, if she was more beautiful that a group of girls.  Cupid sided with the girls, and Venus quickly beat them black and blue and turned them into violets. Romanian culture holds that they are the remains of a little girl whose mother left her in the snow, which is why they bloom even when there is snow still on the ground.  English lore holds that Violet was the name of a girl that King Frost fell in love with.  His love for her thawed his heart and allowed spring to come.  King Frost allows Violet to return to her people every year in the form of this flower.

Medicinally, violets also have a long history.  They were frequently mentioned by Homer and Virgil, and Athenians used preparations made with violets to moderate anger, to procure sleep, and to comfort and strengthen the heart.  Pliny prescribes a liniment of violet root and vinegar for gout and disorder of the spleen, and (as Cunningham mentioned) states that a garland or chaplet of violets worn about the head will dispel the fumes of wine and prevent headache and dizziness. The ancient Britons used the flowers as a cosmetic, and in a Celtic poem they are recommended to be employed steeped in goats’ milk to increase female beauty, and in the Anglo-Saxon translation of the Herbarium of Apuleius (tenth century), the herb V. purpureum is recommended ‘for new wounds and eke for old’ and for ‘hardness of the maw.’  In Macer’s Herbal (tenth century) the Violet is among the many herbs which were considered powerful against ‘wykked sperytis.’  Askham’s Herbal says that if a person who cannot sleep for he is sick soaks his feet up to the ankles in a bath steeped with violets, which would then be bound to his temples after the bath, he will gain rest.

Today it is known that violets contain amounts of salicylic acid, the chief ingredient in aspirin, which accounts for its use in treating pains, fevers, and the heart.  Its roots can be used to prepare an emetic and a laxative, and its leaves can form a mucilaginous substance that has been used in treating colds.  Some herbcrafters have also used violets in treating skin infections and mastitis, and it has been used in the treatment of cancer tumors–particularly those of the colon, lung, and breast.

Viola sororia, known commonly as the Common Blue Violet, is native to eastern North America. It is also known by a number of common names including Common Meadow Violet, Purple Violet, Woolly Blue Violet, Hooded Violet and Wood Violet.

Viola sororia, known commonly as the Common Blue Violet, is native to eastern North America. It is also known by a number of common names including Common Meadow Violet, Purple Violet, Woolly Blue Violet, Hooded Violet and Wood Violet.

In America, the type of violet one is most likely to encounter is Viola sororia.  It has no scent, but–like most violets–is edible.  The leaves have a slight peppery flavor, which is more subtle in the flowers.  Ava Chin in her New York Times column Urban Forager notes that “the first time I ate a violet, it reminded me of what I thought the rain might taste like when I was a child”.   The Native Americans used violet poultices as analgesics and to clear skin infections, and infusions and decoctions for respiratory issues.  Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmalt, in his book Medical Flora, a Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America (1828–1830), wrote of Viola sororia being used by his American contemporaries for coughs, sore throats, and constipation.  Its preparations are very similar to that for Viola odorata, but–being scentless–has an entirely different taste altogether.


Viola tricolor, known as heartsease, heart’s ease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, or love-in-idleness, is a common European wild flower. It has been introduced into North America, where it has spread widely and is known as the johnny-jump-up.

Finally, we come to heartsease, or Viola tricolor.  As with other violets, it has a history of use in pain relief treatment, heart treatment, and skin diseases as well as use in respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, and cold symptoms.  It is also a diuretic leading to its use in treating rheumatism and cystitis.  It has its own standing in folklore, as any Shakespearean scholar can attest.  The bard mentioned Viola tricolor in Hamlet, when Ophelia says “There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts”. (This was before the cultivation of the modern garden pansy, and this Viola went by that name in France, and “pensée” meant “thought”.)  The flower is mentioned again in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There, Oberon sends Puck to gather “a little western flower” that maidens call “love-in-idleness”. Oberon’s account is that he diverted an arrow from Cupid’s bow aimed at “a fair vestal, throned by the west” (supposedly Queen Elizabeth I) to fall upon the plant “before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound”.  The juice of the heartsease now, claims Oberon, “on sleeping eyelids laid, Will make or man or woman madly dote Upon the next live creature that it sees.”

The pansy enjoys a lot of non-Shakespearan folklore, too.  Pluck one of the upper petals, and your lover’s future can be foretold by counting the veins that run through it. Four veins means there’s hope; seven means forever in love; eight, a fickle lover; nine, a change of heart is on the horizon; and finally 11 (get your tissues out), an early death for the love of your life.

Should a pansy bloom in autumn, it was believed that a plague would soon follow. A pansy picked when dew is still fresh on its petals, it was believed, could cause the death of a loved one. If rain has been lacking, lore has it that if you pick a pansy, the clouds will soon open up. Dream of this tricolored beauty, and you can expect troubles to brew with a good friend.

A German legend professes the glorious fragrance of the first pansy and the people who traveled miles to take in its tantalizing scent. So many came that the grasses where the pansies grew became trampled, leaving no food for grazing cattle. The flower then turned its bloom to God and prayed for him to help the cows. God answered by taking away its fragrance and instead giving it a tricolor face. Thus today, the pansy has an adorable blossom and no scent.

Cunningham notes the following for Pansy:

Pansy (Viola tricolor)

Gender:  Feminine
Planet:  Saturn
Element:  Water
Powers:  Love, Rain Magic, Love Divination
Magical Uses:  Worn or carried, the pansy draws love.  It is also potent for love divinations.  Plant pansies in the shape of a heart; if they prosper, so too will your love.  A woman whose sailor-love goes to sea can ensure that he thinks of her by burying sea sand in the pansy bed and watering the flowers before sunrise.  If pansies are picked when dew is still on them, it will soon rain.

I have no idea why this violet species has a different planetary influence than blue violets, but it is pretty clear that no matter what, you can use a violet of any sort in workings that center around love.


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