Foragers 2: Old Friends and New by Emma Williams
“It’s like seeing old friends again,” one of the foragers said, running her hand over the fuzzy leaf of a just-emerging mullein plant. When the foragers 2 group met in April, the redbud blossoms were on the verge of opening, bloodwort and toothwort blooms were bursting forth from the forest floor, and fiddlehead ferns were just beginning to unfurl. Garlic mustard was, of course, in abundance. We learned to identify a cute wildflower called Dutchman’s breeches, which can apparently make cows drunk. Some of these are called spring ephemerals because they bloom briefly and profusely before the forest canopy overhead.
As David George Haskell writes in The Forest Unseen of spring ephemerals, “This name captures their meteoric brilliance in springtime and their rapid fade in the summer sun, but their name belies their secret underground longevity.” Later he writes that these seemly transient flowers may have rhizomes, bulbs, or tubers that are hundreds of years old.
And there were violets. (I wonder if they last too long to be considered ephemerals, but anyway they appear at the same time.) As someone who struggles through winter, I feel relieved to see wild violets sprinkling my lawn in spring, a reward for persisting through the cold weather. I learned about the nutritional and medicinal uses of violet in the Foxhaven CSA; one good resource is this article by Jim McDonald. For the past few weeks, I reconnected with wild violets. I wanted to restart some favorite practices with violets that I had used in the past as well as trying some new recipes. There are loads of wild violet recipes online; I made a Pinterest board of some.
These are my two old favorites:
- Cold infusion – Chopping up violet leaves and soaking them in water overnight, then straining them out and drinking the water the next day is deeply refreshing and nourishing. Adding some lemon balm or mint leaves is a pleasant addition.
- Witch hazel infusion – Chopping violet leaves and let them steep in witch hazel for a few weeks in the refrigerator, creates a nourishing face astringent. Violets have vitamins A and C and salicylic acid, all of which are commonly included in skin care products.
These are some whimsical uses of violets that I had never tried before:
- Syrup – In the Forage Maryland group on Facebook, someone started a thread of foraging hot takes, which included “redbud blossoms and other edible flowers don’t take like anything.” I completely agree. The syrup that I made with redbud and violet blossoms is a beautiful shade of magenta/violet, but it doesn’t take like anything other than plain simple syrup. (It likely has some beneficial phytonutrients, though.) Added to soda water, the drink was too bland and the color washed. However, added to a gin and tonic, it still had no flavor but the drink looked gorgeous. I froze the rest to use in summery cocktails.
- Candied – Candied violets look so pretty in photographs, and I was happy to learn that they could be made from aquafaba. But I discovered that don’t I really care for them. To the extent that they have any flavor, violet flowers taste more like a vegetable than a fruit, so candying them seemed like putting sugar on a piece of lettuce.
As I write this, violet flowers are becoming scarce, though the useful leaves remain. I have run out of time for a few recipes I wanted to try:
- Fresh spring rolls – They look pretty showing through the translucent rice paper is translucent. With lucky timing they could be combined with redbud, lilac and spicebush
- Ink – The color of the syrup made me want to try making ink with the flowers. I froze some flowers to try this later.
In a Year With Rilke, the April 28 entry, an excerpt from Sonnets to Orpheus II, is titled Being Ephemeral and the last few lines are:
Ah, the knowledge of impermanence
that haunts our days
is their very fragrance.
We in our striving think we should last forever,
but could we be used by the Divine
if we were not ephemeral?
And Haskell writes, “The burning bright lives of the ephemerals ignite the rest of the forest. Their growing roots invigorate the dark life of the soil, absorbing and holding the nutrients that would otherwise be flushed out by the spring rains.”
Written by Emma Williams