6 min read

On violet syrup and mowing down the meadow

Today I have for you some musings on spring's growth, mowing the lawn, and making a simple syrup with violets. Thanks for reading!
An aerial view of a jam jar with a handful of violet flowers inside. They are in shades of purpblue-purple, lilac, and white.

Today I have for you some musings on spring's growth, mowing the lawn, and making a simple syrup with violets. Thanks for reading!

Wildflowers don't grow in the city
I dreamt the sidewalk broke in two
The earth was calling to me

— "Wildflowers," Soccer Mommy (Clean, 2018)

Last year, in early April, our yard speckled purple and yellow with wildflowers. I was shocked and delighted. When we moved here the May prior, the whole half acre had been diligently mown within an inch of the ground on a weekly basis. The grass thrived all summer, with the occasional cool-season grass or ground cover “weed” popping up here and there. My first early spring here and I had a meadow on my hands.

A mix of yellow dandelion, deep purple violet, purple-and-white creeping speedwell, green blades of grass, and green leaves of ground ivy.

Thanks to the techno-magic of the Seek app by iNaturalist, I was able to meet these wildflower neighbors, define our existing relationships, and call them by name:

Veronica filiformis, or creeping speedwell; also known by the epithets of slender, threadstalk, and Whetzel weed. They evolved in the Caucasus and arrived here in the early 20th century by way of the British Isles. They naturalized on the land after escaping gardens where they were grown for their beauty.

Glechoma hederacea, ground-ivy or Creeping Charlie. Additional epithets include gill-over-the-ground, alehood, tunhoof, catsfoot, field balm, and run-away-robin. They are an ancient medicine of Western Europe, the ancestral home of most of my family lines; the Saxons used them to flavor and preserve ale prior to the 15th century. It now runs rampant over and through the lawns of North America, choking out native species with its unrelenting runners.

Taraxacum officinale, the common dandelion, an old familiar friend, no epithets required. They are native to Eurasia and have naturalized nearly everywhere else on the globe. It’s said that they were introduced as a food crop—my recent ancestors and family, to my knowledge, have only ever utilized them for wine.

Viola sororia, the common blue violet; also known by the epithets of common meadow, purple, woolly blue, hooded, wood, and according to Seek, “the lesbian flower” (possibly explaining my immediate affinity for them). They are native to the landmass that I and my settler ancestors call home, known first as Turtle Island and then as North America, east of the continental divide.

The violets in my meadow are of the common blue variety, one that evolved right here in my local biome, the Eastern Temperate Forests. Also abundant in yards across this biome is the Viola odorata, the sweet violet of Europe, a plant traditionally foraged in the springtime and used to concoct elixirs and jellies.

Earth-lover of European descent that I am, I decided to harvest some of my local bounty to craft and consume. Lacking pectin and a desire to learn its ways, I settled on making violet syrup, with a grand vision to pair it with gin and ice on hot summer evenings.

A common blue violet with three blue-purple flowers. They are surrounded by blades of grass and some ground ivy. The flowers look a little shy and folded up in the morning light.

I started shyly on a cool April morning, plucking the few first blooms as the yard could spare them. I made a quick decision to take only half of the flowers or less from each spray of heart-shaped leaves, wanting to keep some for the bees and let the youngest ones mature. There was hardly enough for a sip of syrup, but I crafted gratefully, watching in awe as the blue-green violet tea turned true purple with a squeeze of lemon juice. The green hue came from the calyxes of the flowers, which I didn’t know well enough to remove, and the syrup turned out bitter and funky. My late grandfather once wrote to me that Oscar Wilde once said “nothing worth learning can be taught,” and I’ve found that to be true.

By the time I was ready for a second harvest, the violets had multiplied across the yard, and I was glad to have limited my first one. The blooms were abundant, shades of blue and white rippling across the shadier areas of our half-acre, and this time half-or-less filled a jar quickly. I sat in the sun and gently plucked calyx from blossom, again and again, until I was sure there would be no green in the tea. By the end, my fingers smelled like fairy perfume.

This tea was a gorgeous periwinkle that turned to fuchsia after the lemon squeeze. I boiled it down with sugar and voila, the sweet syrup of my dreams came to be! The violet flavor was a bit weak, if I’m honest, but I enjoyed the crafting so much that I hardly minded. It still paired great with gin.

I did make a third harvest to replenish my syrup stash, but after that I let the bees have the rest. I’m no botanist, but I’m convinced that my plucking encouraged the plants to send up more blossoms; by the end of violet season, the yard was so rich with flowers that it truly seemed more meadow than lawn. This suspicion was reinforced by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay “The Honorable Harvest” from her foundational text Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, which I read for the first time over the summer.

My neighbor takes lawn care very seriously. I do, too, but in different ways and to different ends. He mows multiple times a week using a few different machines, a ritual that begins as early in April as the season’s new growth arrives. My lawn care style, especially in those precious early days of spring, is characterized by neglect. As the first “weeds” (wildflowers) of spring take root and strengthen, the grass grows long around them. By late April the yard is bumbling with bees and appealing to grazing cervids, just how I like it. Incidentally, it also makes it very friendly to ticks—I figure there’s no give without a little take.

On more than one occasion this neighbor, friendly and Midwestern, offered to mow my lawn for me. I politely denied the offer, as I always do, and week over week it intensified until it was very clear that he found my meadow unruly. The mower should be back from the shop next week, I lied, pushing my first chop as late into May as possible. The reward I reaped, in addition to the incalculable value of pollinator support, was an abundance of violets.

Erin, a white woman with blue eyes and a silver nose ring, smiles at the camera from under a striped sun hat. In the background is a red Toro push lawnmower.

In the last week of May, I mowed the meadow down with my parents' hand-me-down Toro push lawnmower, a dented red-and-black beast that’s likely about as old as I am (27, but who’s counting?). I said a solemn prayer for the wildflowers, wishing them well until next year, and the Toro’s ruthless blade chopped them into mulch for the soil and grass. In my naivete, I was delighted when they came back strong in the days that followed. That extra six weeks of growth, between the first days of lawn growth and the end of May, must have allowed Viola and Veronica and their sweet-nectared friends to grow strong and deep enough to bounce back quickly in the wake of the first chop.

Spring’s first growth isn’t meant to last, though, and a few mows later the meadow was gone, filled in by turf grass and clover (over and over). The violet syrup was gone soon after.

These short, overcast winter days make me miss the violet season fiercely. It's coming again soon, but it's been hard to believe it amid our third snow flurry of March. I long to feel the sky’s soft, tentative sunlight and the earth’s blue-violet petals, softer still, on my hands and on my tongue. Imbolc has just passed us by, and the wheel is turning on toward the Spring Equinox, only ever in its own time—and that time, I’ll bide with dreams of gin and violet.

Thanks a million for reading! Your attention is finite and precious, so I'm always humbled when you choose to turn it to my words. Future newsletters will have a section at the end for garden updates, bookshelf brags, favorite songs, etc. but this one will end right here. 💫