A Tiny Herb Worth Knowing
by Maryann Readal
Heartsease, Viola tricolor, also called Johnny-jump-up, is The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for March. It is the perfect time to learn about this delicate little woodland herb that will be popping out of the warming earth very soon. You may know V. tricolor by one of its many other names. There are dozens of names for it including wild pansy, hearts delight, come-and-cuddle-me, love-in-idleness, call-me-to-you, and kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate, etc.
V. tricolor is in the violet family (Violaceae). The flowers can be purple, yellow, or white but are most commonly all three colors. The herb is native to Europe and Eurasia and was thought to be brought to the United States by colonists. It can be an annual, biennial, or a short-lived perennial. It will reseed itself and thrives in cooler weather.
This unassuming little herb is rich in folklore. In both Greek and Roman mythology, Viola tricolor was associated with love. The Romans believed that Cupid, the god of desire, hit the flower of Viola tricolor with his arrow by mistake, causing the white flower to become tricolored and the juice to become a love potion. A Greek legend tells of the love that Eros had for the white flowers. Aphrodite, being jealous of his love for the flower, turned it into the three colors to stop his love. Early Christians thought that the three-colored flowers of heartsease symbolized the Holy Trinity. The Druids made magical potions with it and used it in purification rituals. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table believed the lines on the petals foretold their future.
Viola tricolor was Queen Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) favorite flower. She embroidered the flower on gifts to her family, and some of her elaborate dresses had the flower woven into the fabric.
Shakespeare (1564-1616) used the love potion legend of V. tricolor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1, saying about heartsease that the “the juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid, will make a man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.” Viola tricolor appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as in Taming of the Shrew Act 1, Scene 1.
But my favorite story comes from Germany, where heartsease is called “Stiefmütterchen” (little stepmother). The story is that the large bottom petal (the stepmother) sits on two sepals, the two petals on either side of the bottom petal are the daughters and they each have their own sepal. The two petals at the top are the stepdaughters and they share a single sepal and are in the back of the other petals.
V. tricolor is the mother of the beautiful pansies with huge, striking faces that we plant in our gardens in the spring. These pansies were introduced as hybrids of the wild pansy in 1813 in Britain by Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet, who hybridized them with her gardener, William Richardson. Around the same time in England, Lord Gambier was working with his gardener on hybridizing the wild pansy as well. By 1833, there were over 400 named pansies developed from the tiny viola that we call heartsease.
An interesting and observable characteristic of heartsease was noted by Maud Grieve in her book The Modern Herbal: “The flower protects itself from rain and dew by drooping its head both at night and in wet weather, and thus the back of the flower and not its face receives moisture.” V. tricolor is self-fertile and readily reseeds itself. Fritillary butterflies lay their eggs on the plant, and various bees, thrips, and flies visit it.
The flowers of V. tricolor are edible and are used in salads, butters, and in ice cubes to dress up a beverage. They make a colorful garnish. The leaves are mucilaginous and can be used to thicken soup. A tea is made from the leaves.
Other uses include using the leaves as a litmus test and using the flowers to make a yellow, green, and blue-green dye.
Viola tricolor has a long history of use in traditional medicines. Its use is documented in the Pharmacopoeia of Europe. Its anti-inflammatory properties have made it a traditional medicinal remedy for skin diseases such as psoriasis, eczema, scabs, and itchy skin. It has also been used to treat inflammation and chest conditions such as bronchitis and asthma. Research shows that the cyclotides in V. tricolor may have promise in the treatment of cancers. However, more research still needs to be done.
When I see the dainty little flowers of V. tricolor, I remember the gardens of my sweet mother and grandmother who always had them growing in their gardens. I also think of this quote from William Bullein, an early English physician, who said in 1562, “Pray God give thee but one handful of Heavenly Heartsease which passeth all the pleasant flowers that grow in this worlde.”
May you be inspired to plant some heartsease in your garden this spring.
For more information of heartsease, Viola tricolor, please visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html
Photo Credits: 1) Viola tricolor (Muriel Bendel, Wikimedia Commons); 2) Elizabeth I, Hardwick portrait, with Viola tricolor on bottom left (Nicholas Hilliard); 3) Viola tricolor and V. arvensis (C.A.M. Lindman (1836-1928), Wikimedia Commons)
Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal. Dover Publications. 1971. (reprint)
Hellinger, Roland, et al. Immunosuppressive activity of aqueous Viola tricolor herbal extract . Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2014. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24216163/
Hodgson, Larry. The Year of the Pansy. 2017. https://laidbackgardener.blog/tag/icicle-pansy/
Lim, T.K. Edible Medicinal and Non Medicinal Plants: Volume 8, Flowers. Springer. 2014. https://books.google.com/books?id=-nvGBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA815#v=onepage&q&f=false
Plants for a future. https://pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?latinname=Viola+tricolor,
North Carolina Plant Toolbox. Viola Tricolor. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/viola-tricolor/
Wells, Diana. 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 1997.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.