By Maryann Readal
The Viola species are the January 2022 Herb of the Month for The Herb Society of America and also the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year for 2022. Heartsease (Viola tricolor) is one of the species in this group of herbal plants. This little unassuming flower has symbolized love, death, and rebirth since Roman and Greek times. During those early days, it was believed to be an aphrodisiac and was also used to treat heart conditions. Hence, one of its many names was heartsease.
The little flower has inspired poems, plays, and even books, many of them dealing with love issues. Roman mythology tells us that Eros struck a viola and caused the flower to smile. Cupid worshiped heartsease, making Aphrodite so jealous of the little flower that she turned it from white to tricolored.
In Shakespeare’s play, Midsummer Night’s Dream (ca 1595), heartsease is a catalyst as the comedy unfolds. Shakespeare tells us that Cupid, the god of love, aiming his arrow at a vestal virgin, hits a delicate white flower called love-in-idleness (Viola tricolor). The flower turns to purple, and from it comes a juice that is a love potion. When placed on the eyelids, the juice makes one fall in love with the first creature he or she sees.
In the play, Oberon orders Puck to fetch the flower so that he can play a trick on his lady, Titania. He drops juice from the flower on her eyelids while she is sleeping. The first creature Titania sees when she awakes is a donkey, and falls in love. Oberon, fortunately, was able to reverse the magic spell on Titania, and Titania sees the donkey for what he was—a donkey. Other couples in the play are matched by using the viola juice on the eyelids trick. Lovers are reunited because of the love potion from the little flower of heartsease.
It was believed that heartsease could cure the effects of illicit love too, which resulted in what some countries called the French disease, also known as syphilis. John Gerard (1545-1612) and Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), both herbalists and physicians, prescribed heartsease as a cure and as a pain reliever for syphilis, although it was not a common practice at the time (Watts, 2007).
Heartsease, also known as wild pansy, is the ancestor of the colorful pansies that we plant in our spring gardens. The story is that if you put pansies under your pillow, new love will find you. If you plant pansies in a heart shape and they thrive, your relationship will thrive as well.
Heartsease is a common European wildflower. It may reseed itself in your garden. For more information about Viola species please see The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for January and the March 2021 Herb Society blog article about it.
I leave you to ponder a poem about heartsease and lost love by C. Day Lewis. Lewis was a popular young poet in the 1930s.
Do you remember that hour
In a nook of the flowing uplands
When you found for me, at the cornfield’s edge,
A golden and purple flower?
Heartsease, you said.
I thought it might be
A token that love meant well by you and me.
I shall not find it again.
With you no more to guide me.
I could not bear to find it now
With anyone else beside me.
And the heartsease is far less rare
Than what it is named for, what I can feel nowhere.
Once again it is summer:
Wildflowers beflag the lane
That takes me away from our golden uplands,
Heart-wrung and alone.
The best I can look for, by vale or hill,
A herb they tell me is common enough—self-heal.
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.
Photo Credits: 1) Pansy heart (Maryann Readal); 2) Scene from a Midsummer Night’s Dream (Edwin Landseer, Wikimedia Commons); 3) Viola tricolor (Muriel Bendel, Wikimedia Commons)
Lewis, C. Day. 1992. Complete poems of C. Day Lewis. “The heartsease.” London. Accessed 12/2/21. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Shakespeare, William. ca1595. Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Accessed 11/30/21. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/midsummer/full.html
Watts, D. C. 2007. Dictionary of Plant Lore. San Diego: Elsevier Science & Technology. Accessed 12/2/21. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Wells, Diana. 1997. 100 flowers and how they got their names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
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 lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.