Sweet Violet: 18th Century Discrepancy

Quincy in the 18th century refers only to the opening qualities of violets. He ranks them among the cathartics, not the cordials, despite Miller’s designation of them as one of the four cordial flowers. They are ‘in everyone’s acquaintance for their use in medicine’. Although the syrup is the only preparation, and used less often than formerly, he says, ‘although among the nurses it still remains in its wonted esteem, for a safe and gentle purger of young children’. He suggests a dose of ΒΌ-1 oz. It is too gentle, however, for purging adults: ‘no dose is sufficient to make it a proper purge to them’. This heralds Cullen’s later estimation of the purgative virtue as little to be depended upon. Quincy’s discussion of the actions of cathartics, however, makes interesting reading. He says The peristaltic or vermicular motion of the guts, is such as continually propels forward their contents, from the pylorus down to the rectum. Now every irritation either quickens that motion in its natural order, or occasions some little inversions of it. In both, what but slightly adhered to the coats or inner membranes, will be loosen’d and shook off and carried forward with their contents; and they will also be more agitated, and thus render’d more fluid. By this only is it manifest, how a cathartic hastens and increases the discharges by stool. But the same manner of operation also carries its effects much further in proportion to the force of the stimulus. For where it is great, all the appendices of the bowels and even all the viscera in the abdomen, will by a consent of their parts, that is, a communication of nerves, be pulled or twitched, so as to affect their respective juices in the same manner as the intestines themselves affect their contents. The consequence of which must be, that a great deal will be drained back into the intestines, and made a part of what they discharge. And when we consider the vast number of glands in the intestines, with the outlets of those viscera opening there into, and particularly of the pancreas and liver; it will be no wonder what vast quantities, especially in full constitutions, may be carried off by one small purge’.

Miller suggests broader actions for violets and designates them one of the four cordial flowers. (Culpeper has five cordial flowers: rose Rosa species, viola, borage Borago officinalis, bugloss Echium vulgare and lemon balm Melissa officinalis). They are cooling, moistening and laxative, good in affections of the breast and lungs, helping coughs and pleuritic pains. He records purging in children ‘to open and cool their bodies’. He mentions use in enemas and ointments against inflammations. The seed is reckoned good for the stone and gravel, he says. He concords with Quincy that the only official preparation is the syrupus violarum. Hill offers a recipe for the syrup of violets; boiling water is to be poured upon the flowers, just enough to cover them, and it is to stand all night. It is then strained and sugar added at the rate of 2 lb to each pint, and then melted over a fire. He, like Quincy, accounts it mainly a gentle purge for children, although he adds the use of the dried leaves in decoction for enemas and the infusion works by urine.