Making use of those spring ephemerals.
By Lisa Brunette
We’ve latched onto the idea of “permaculture,” drawn to the movement’s emphasis on independence through a garden stocked with human-use plants. So rather than only enjoying the sight and smell of the spring season’s plethora of petals, we challenge ourselves to make use of them as well.
Now there are tons of sites on the Internet that tackle the subject of how to make your own concoctions from botanicals, some of them even devoted to a particular flower. I’d like to show how we work with two flowering plants most of you are likely to have in abundance, both of which we get for free:
Violet, a low-growing ground cover and volunteer that’s native to North America
Lilac, an exotic ornamental that was already here when we bought the property
Some caveats about the violet: What we have growing here in abundance is viola sororia. The leaves and flowers are edible, but the flower is not aromatic, so that does limit its uses. You can think of it as beneficial for the “green” taste of the leaves and flowers, its medicinal qualities (it has been used throughout history to treat headaches, coughs, and colds, for example)1, and its fun, kind of amazing use as a natural dye.
Violets are an example of what permaculturists call a plant with a “stacked function.” Not only can people make great use of violets for food, medicine, and dye, but they are also a useful ground cover, and they support fritillary butterflies, which lay eggs on the leaves so their larvae can feast on them when they hatch.
So, how do you get them from your yard to your pantry? Some herbal sources recommend the traditional method of drying plants, which is to hang them upside down in bunches in a dark place with good air circulation, as in the image of lilac bundles above. This seems more difficult with violets, as they’re quite short, and rather than harvesting the entire plant, you can simply snip off the flowers.
If you want to be a purist about the petals, you can separate them from the green caps, but we leave them on. We also harvest crops of leaves and petals, drying them in a dehydrator to use later as tea. We use Anthony’s ancient dehydrator—he’s had it since college. It has that look of ‘hippie stuff from the late 80s/early 90s.’ And it works great.
Like I said, with the sororia variety, you’re talking about a “green” tea. It can be a bit blah, so you might want to mix it with something more tasteful, such as mint or chamomile. We drink it fresh, too, and it’s pleasant but very mild. Still, you’re getting the medicinal benefits this way, and it’s a nice alternative to Asian green tea if, like me, you’re sensitive to any caffeine at all.
Now back to that bowl of violet petals. It’s a terrific dye! Its best use, in my opinion, is as a natural dye for vinegar. This would color Easter eggs easily. All you do is drop a bunch of petals in the bottom of a jar, pour white vinegar over the top, and leave it in that handy cool, dark place for a few days. Because the vinegar can react with metal, I add a square of wax paper to the top, between the lid and jar.
Since the violets aren’t aromatic, they’re not particularly sweet or flavorful, either, so I take the above vinegar and add lilac flowers to it as well, giving it a sweet kick. It’s a terrific combo—violet and lilac—the violets for the purple hue, and the lilacs for the sweet flavor. I made up jars for everyone in my family and dropped them off at their homes during the pandemic. Since my mother likes to drink apple cider vinegar as a gut tonic, I made hers with an unfiltered variety of that vinegar. It was a bit cloudier and not as purple but still a nice hue. The flowers are really pleasant, floating in the jar. Over time, the color leaches out of them, and they go pale but still look neat.
Anthony and I also frequently make syrup using lilac petals. This process is a little more involved than the vinegar. First, you do need to make sure you separate the green bits from the petal, which is easier to do with lilac blossoms. This will preserve the lilac color; whereas, the green makes it appear muddier.
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