Tea Time: Violet Leaf Tea

The genus Viola is large and widespread. Its flowers are easily recognizable and obviously popular. A significant number of Viola species, hybrids, and cultivars are commercially available and commonly planted in flower beds and container gardens. Certain species have even become weeds – vicious lawn invaders in some people’s opinion. Violets (or pansies in some cases) are also edible. Their leaves and/or flowers can be used in salads, drinks, and desserts. One way to use the leaves is to make tea, so that’s what I did.

I imagine you can make tea from any Viola species, but after some searching I found that two species frequently mentioned are Viola odorata and Viola sororia Рtwo very similar looking plants, one from the Old World and the other from the New World.

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Viola odorata – commonly known as sweet violet, wood violet, or English violet – is distributed across Europe and into Asia and has been widely introduced outside of its natural range. It has round, oval, or heart-shaped leaves with toothed margins that grow from the base of the plant, giving it a groundcover-type habit. Its flowers range from dark purple to white and are borne atop a single stem that curves downward at the top like a shepherd’s crook. It has no leafy, upright stems, and it spreads horizontally via stolons and rhizomes. The flowers are distinctly fragrant and have a long history of being used in perfumes.

One way to get a good whiff of these flowers is to try a trick described in the book The Reason for Flowers by Stephen Buchmann:

Go into a garden or any natural area and select one or more flowers you want to investigate…. Select a small, thoroughly washed and dried glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Place just one type of flower in the jar. Set your jar in a warm, sunny place such as a windowsill and come back in an hour or two. Carefully open the lid and sniff…. If you’ve selected a blossom with even the faintest scent, you should be able to smell it now, since the fragrance molecules have concentrated inside the jar.

sweet violet flowers inside glass jar

Viola sororia – native to eastern North America –¬† is also commonly planted outside of its native range. It’s clearly a favorite, having earned the distinction of state flower in four U.S. states. Known as the common blue violet (or myriad other commons names), it looks and acts a lot like sweet violet. I distinguish them by their flowers, which are wider and rounder (chunkier, perhaps) than sweet violet flowers, and their leaves, which are generally more heart-shaped. Feel free to correct me. If, like me, you’re having trouble identifying violets, keep in mind that Viola species are highly variable and notorious hybridizers, so don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s their fault, not yours.

common blue violet (Viola sororia)

Violets bloom when the air is cool and the days are short. They are among the earliest plants to flower after the new year and among the latest plants flowering as the year comes to a close. In his entry on violets in The Book of Forest and Thicket, John Eastman refers to these early bloomers as “this low, blue flame in the woods.” They are like “a pilot light that ignites the entire burst of resurrection we call spring.” I can’t really picture spring without them. I find their unique flowers so intriguing that I fixate on them whenever I see them. And once I learned that I could make a tea out of their leaves, I had to try it.

I used the leaves of Viola odorata (or what I, with my amateur skills, identified as V. odorata). I picked several of what looked to be young leaves and left them to dry in the sun for several days. Later, I chopped them up and brewed a tea according to the instructions found on this website, which suggests using one tablespoon of dried leaves in sixteen ounces of water. Apparently, a little goes a long way, and I probably could have used fewer leaves than I did.

dried, chopped up leaves of sweet violet (Viola odorata) for making tea

The tea has a nice green color and smells a bit like grass to me. It may even taste like grass. I found it fairly bitter. Sierra didn’t like it and called it musty. I enjoyed it, but would likely enjoy it more if I hadn’t made it quite so strong. The aforementioned website also recommends combining violet leaf with other things like mint, dandelion, clover, and/or chamomile. I imagine a combination of ingredients could be better than just violet leaf on its own. Another site warns that “some of the wild violets have an unpleasant soapy flavor,” so that’s something to keep in mind when selecting your leaves for tea and other things. Either way, violet leaf tea is an experience worth having.

See Also: Pine Needle Teas

Book Review: Fruit from the Sands

“By dispensing plants and animals all around the world, humans have shaped global cuisines and agricultural practices. One of the most fascinating and least-discussed episodes in this process took place along the Silk Road.” — Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III

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My understanding of the origins of agriculture and the early years of crop domestication are cursory at best. The education I received was mostly concerned with the Fertile Crescent, as well as crops domesticated by early Americans. The Silk Road, as I understood it, was the route or routes used to move goods across Asia and into eastern Europe well after the domestication of many of the crops we know today. Other than the fact that several important crops originate there, little was ever taught to me about Central Asia and its deep connection to agriculture and crop domestication. I suppose that’s why when I picked up Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III, published last year by University of California Press, I wasn’t entirely prepared for what I was about to read.

It wasn’t until I read a few academic reviews of Fruit from the Sands that I really started to understand. Spengler’s book is groundbreaking, and much of the research he presents is relatively new. The people of Central Asia played a monumental role in discovering and developing much of the food we grow today and some of the techniques we use to grow them, and a more complete story is finally coming to light thanks to the work of archaeologists like Spengler, as well as advances in technology that help us make sense of their findings.

This long history with agricultural development can still be seen today in the markets of Central Asia, which are loaded with countless varieties of fruits, grains, and nuts, many of which are unique to the area. Yet this abundance is also at risk. Crop varieties are being lost at an alarming rate with the expansion of industrial agriculture and the reliance on a small selection of cultivars. With that comes the loss of local agricultural knowledge. Yet, with climate change looming, diversity in agriculture is increasingly important and one of the tools necessary for maintaining an abundant and reliable food supply. Unveiling a thorough history of our species’ agricultural roots will not only give us an understanding as to how we got here, but will also help us learn from past successes and failures. Hence, the work that Spengler and others in the field of archaeobotany are doing is crucial.

To set the stage for a discussion of “the Silk Road origins of the foods we eat,” Spengler offers his definition of the Silk Road. The term is misleading because there isn’t (and never was) a single road, and the goods, which were transported in all directions across Asia, included much more than silk. In fact, some of what was transported wasn’t a good at all, but knowledge, culture, and religion. In Spengler’s words, “The Silk Road … is better thought of as a dynamic cultural phenomenon, marked by increased mobility and interconnectivity in Eurasia, which linked far-flung cultures….This network of exchange, which placed Central Asia at the center of the ancient world, looked more like the spokes of a wheel than a straight road.” Spengler also sees the origins of the Silk Road going back at least five thousand years, much earlier than many might expect.

Most of Spengler’s book is organized into chapters discussing a single crop or group of crops, beginning with grains (millet, rice, barley, wheat) then moving on to fruits, nuts, and vegetables before ending with spices, oils, and teas. Each chapter compiles massive amounts of research that can be a bit overwhelming to take in all at once. Luckily each section includes a short summary, which nicely distills the information down into something more digestible.

Spengler’s chapter on broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) is particularly powerful. While in today’s world millet has largely “been reduced to a children’s breakfast food in Russia and bird food in Western Europe and America,” it was “arguably the most influential crop of the ancient world.” Originally domesticated in East Asia, “it passed along the mountain foothills of Central Asia and into Europe by the second millennium BC.” It is a high-yielding crop adapted to hot, dry conditions that, with the development of summer irrigation, could be grown year-round. These and other appealing qualities have led to an increase in the popularity of millet, so much so that 2023 will be the International Year of Millets.

The “poster child” for Spengler’s book may very well be the apple. Popular the world over, the modern apple began its journey in Central Asia. As Spengler writes, “the true ancestor of the modern apple is Malus sieversii,” and “remnant populations of wild apple trees survive in southeastern Kazakhstan today.” As the trees were brought westward, they hybridized with other wild apple species, bringing rise to the incredible diversity of apple cultivars we know today. Sadly though, most of us are only familiar with the small handful of common varieties found at our local supermarkets.

Of course, as Spengler says, “No discussion of plants on the Silk Road would be complete without the inclusion of tea (Camellia sinensis),” a topic that could produce volumes on its own. Despite the brevity of the section on tea, Spengler has some interesting things to say. One in particular involves the transport of tea to Tibet in the seventh century, where “an unquenchable thirst for tea” had developed. But the journey there was long and difficult. Fermented and oxidized tea leaves traveled best. Along the way, “the leaves were exposed to extreme cold as well as hot and humid temperatures in the lowlands, and all the time they were jostled on the backs of sweaty horses and mules.” This, however, only improved the tea, as teas exposed to such conditions “became a highly sought-after commodity among the elites.”

“In Central Asia, Mongolia, and Tibet, tea leaves were oxidized, dried, and compressed into hard bricks from which chunks could be broken off and immersed in water.” – Robert N. Spengler III in Fruit from the Sands (photo via wikimedia commons)

As dense as this book is, it’s also quite approachable. The information presented in each of the chapters is thorough enough to be textbook material, but Spengler does such a nice job summing up the main points, that there are plenty of great takeaways for the casual reader. For those wanting a deeper dive into the history of our food (which in many ways is the history of us), Spengler’s book is an excellent starting point.

More Reviews of Fruit from the Sands:

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Eating Weeds: Chicory

Over the course of human history, plant species once esteemed or considered useful have been recategorized into something less desirable. For one reason or another, plants fall out of favor or wear out their welcome, and, in come cases, are found to be downright obnoxious, ultimately losing their place in our yards and gardens. The particularly troublesome ones are branded as weeds, and put on our “do not plant” lists. These plants are not only unfavored, they’re despised. But being distinguished as a weed doesn’t necessary negate a plant’s usefulness. It’s likely that the plant still has some redeeming characteristics. We’ve just chosen instead to pay more attention its less redeeming ones.

Chicory is a good example of a plant like this. At one point in time, Cichorium intybus had a more prominent place in our gardens, right alongside dandelions in fact. European colonizers first introduced chicory to North America in the late 1700’s. Its leaves were harvested for use as a salad green and its roots were used to make a coffee additive or substitute. Before that, cultivation of chicory for these and other purposes had been going on across Europe for thousands of years, and it still goes on today to a certain extent. Along with other chicory varieties, a red-leafed form known as radicchio and a close cousin known as endive (Chicorium endivia) are grown as specialty crops, occassionally finding their way into our fanciest of salads.

Radicchio di Chioggia (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum) is a cultivated variety of chicory. (via wikimedia commons)

Chicory’s tough, adaptable nature and proclivity to escape cultivation have helped it become widespread, making itself at home in natural areas as well as urban and rural settings. Its perennial life history helps make it a fixture in the landscape. It sends down a long, sturdy taproot and settles in for the long haul. It tolerates dry, compacted soils with poor fertility and doesn’t shy away from roadside soils frequently scoured with salts. It’s as though it was designed to be a city weed.

Unlike many other perennial weeds, chicory doesn’t spread vegetatively. It starts its life as a seed, blown in from a nearby plant. After sprouting, it forms a dandelion-esque rosette of leaves during its first year. Wiry, branched stems rise up from the rosette in following years, reaching heights of anywhere from about a foot to 5 or 6 feet. When broken, leaves, stems, and roots ooze a milky sap. Abundant flowers form along the gangly stems. Like other plants in the aster family, each flower head is composed of multiple flowers. Chicory flower heads are all ray flowers, lacking the disc flowers found in the center of other plants in this family. The petals are a brilliant blue – sometimes pink or white. Individual flowers last less than a day and are largely pollinated by bees. The fruits lack the large pappus found on dandelions and other close relatives, but the seeds are still dispersed readily with the help of wind, animals, and human activity.

chicory (Cichorium intybus) via wikimedia commons

The most commonly consumed portions of chicory are its leaves and roots. Its flowers and flower buds are also edible. Young leaves and blanched leaves are favored because they are the least bitter. Excluding the leaves from light by burying or covering them up keeps them pale and reduces their bitter flavor. This is standard practice in the commercial production of certain chicory varieties. The taproots of chicory are dried, roasted, and ground for use as a coffee substitute. They are also harvested commercially for use as a natural sweetener due to their high concentration of inulin.

my puny chicory root

I harvested a single puny chicory root in order to make tea. On my bike ride to work there is a small, sad patch of chicory growing in the shade of large trees along the bike path. I was only able to pull one plant up by the roots. The others snapped off at the base. So, I took my tiny root, dried and roasted it in the oven, and ground it up in a coffee grinder. I followed instructions for roasting found on this website, but there are many other sources out there. I had just enough to make one small cup of tea, which reminded me of dandelion root teas I have had. Sierra found it to be very bitter, and I agreed but still enjoyed it. I figure that wild plants, especially those growing in stressful conditions like mine was, are likely to be more bitter and strong tasting compared to coddled, cultivated ones found in a garden.

roasted chicory root

roasted and ground chicory root

When I find a larger patch of feral chicory, I hope to try one of several recipes included in Luigi Ballerini’s book, A Feast of Weeds, as well as other recipes out there. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Are you curious to know how chicory became such a successful weed in North America? Check out this report in Ecology and Evolution to learn about the genetic explanation behind chicory’s success.

Eating Weeds: Pineapple Weed

When I wrote about pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) last year during the Summer of Weeds, I knew that it was edible but I didn’t bother trying it. Pineapple weed is one of my favorite native weeds (yes, it happens to be a native of northwestern North America). I enjoy its sweet fragrance, its frilly leaves, its “petal”-less flowers, and its diminutive size. I also appreciate its tough nature. Now that I have tried pineapple weed tea, I have another thing to add to this list of pros.

pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea)

One thing about pineapple weed that always impresses me is its ability to grow in the most compacted soils. It actually seems to prefer them. It is consistently found in abundance in highly trafficked areas, like driveways, parking lots, and pathways, seemingly unfazed by regular trampling. Referring to pineapple weed in one of his books about wildflowers, botanist¬†John Hutchinson wrote, “the more it is trodden on the better it seems to thrive.” This is not something you can say about too many other plants.

Both the leaves and flowers of pineapple weed are edible. The flowers seem to be the more common of the two to consume, generally in tea form. In his book Wild Edible and Useful Plants of Idaho, Ray Vizgirdas writes, “A delicious tea can be made from the dried flowers of the plant. The leaves are edible, but bitter. The medicinal uses of pineapple weed are identical to that of chamomile (Anthemis). Used as a tea it is a carminative, antispasmodic, and mild sedative.” In Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, Peter Del Tredici writes, “A tea made from the leaves has been used in traditional medicine for stomachaches and colds.”

I harvested my pineapple weed at the end of a dirt parking lot and in an adjacent driveway/pathway. I noted how the pineapple weed’s presence waned as I reached the edges of the parking lot and pathway where, presumably, the ground was less compact. Maybe it has more to compete with there – other weeds – and so it shows up less, or maybe its roots simply “prefer” compact soils. Perhaps a little of both. Once I got my harvest home, I rinsed it off and left it to dry. Later, I snipped off the flower heads and made a tea.

I probably used more water than I needed to, so it was a bit diluted, but it was still delicious. It smelled and tasted a lot like chamomile. Sierra agreed. With a little honey added, it was especially nice. Sierra agreed again. The flowers of pineapple weed can be used fresh or dried. They can also be mixed with other ingredients to make a more interesting tea, like the recipe found here.

If you are hesitant to take the leap into eating weeds, a tea may be the simplest thing you can try. Pineapple weed tea is a great way to ease yourself into it. Apart from maybe having to harvest it from strange places, it probably isn’t much different from other teas you have tried, and, from my experience, it’s delightful.