The plant does not appear in Cook or Ellingwood in the USA. The National Botanic Pharmacopoeia summarizes the view in the early part of the 20th century. Inflammation of the eyes, sleeplessness, pleurisy, jaundice and quinsy ‘are but a few of the ailments for which it was held potent’. The general assessment in this herbal is not encouraging; ‘it is still found in the pharmacopoeias though many of the virtues ascribed to it in the Middle Ages have not stood the test of time and greater experience’. This might be a rather severe judgement, particularly given the narrow range of application mode and lack of emphasis or perhaps sufficient appreciation of its broader cooling properties within its earlier context. Its reputation as an anti cancer herb is explored in Potter’s Bulletin of May 1902, cited by the National Botanic Pharmacopoeia, recording the case of a 67-year-old lady whose malignant throat tumour was cleared in 14 days on use of this herb. They suggest a handful of fresh green violet leaves infused in 1 pint of boiling water covered for 12 hours; this is strained and warmed; then a piece of lint, soaked in this infusion, is placed ‘where the malady is’, covered with oilskin or flannel and changed when dry or cold.
Grieve writes expansively on violets, covering various traditions and more modern use, this latter being mainly as a coloring agent and perfume and as source of the medicinally employed syrup of violets. She records Macer’s use against ‘wykked sperytis’, their association with death of the young and Napoleon’s adoption of them as his emblem. She gives detailed advice on their cultivation. The chemical constituents are introduced: the odorous principle and the blue coloring, the glycoside viola-quercitin, and salicylic acid. The laxative properties are covered, syrup of violets being found in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia for infants in doses of ½-1 teaspoon or more with equal quantities of oil of almonds. Older uses are summarized. Grieve also reports on the action of the underground stems or rhizomes as strongly emetic and purgative, sometimes used as adulterant to ipecacuanha. 40 to 50 grains (2600-3250 mg), she says, of the powdered root is said to ‘act violently, inciting nausea and great vomiting and nervous affection, due to the pronounced emetic qualities of the alkaloid contained’. The seeds are recorded as purgative and diuretic in urinary complaints, particularly for gravel. She then introduces its more recent use as cancer treatment, internal and external, especially for cancer of the throat and tongue. Later she mentions cancer of the colon in the context of the great quantity of fresh leaf supply needed for such treatment. She gives a recipe and a resounding commendation for an ointment; ‘place 2 oz of the best lard in a jar in the oven till it becomes quite clear. Then add about 36 fresh violet leaves. Stew them in the lard for about an hour till the leaves are the consistency of cooked cabbage. Strain and when cold put into a covered pot for use. This is a good old-fashioned Herbal remedy which has been allowed to fall into disuse. It is good as an application for superficial tubercles in the glands of the neck, Violet Leaves Tea being drunk at the same time’.
Weiss refers to its reputation as a ‘native cough remedy’. Although the flowers are gathered to make the syrup, their use, he says, is for coloring other remedies rather than as a cough remedy. Unlike Grieve, Weiss tells us the most valuable part is the root containing saponin, glycoside, anthocyan and small amount of emetine-like alkaloid. While the alkaloid does not occur in sufficient amounts to compare with ipecacuanha, the saponin offers a useful expectorant prescribed in chronic bronchitis. The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia makes no mention of the root. The dried leaves and flowers are expectorant and antine-oplastic, indicated for malignant disease both internally and externally, bronchitis and chronic naso-pharyngeal catarrh.
So quite a journey from Dioscorides and Galen – heartburn, eyes, prolapse, sore throat, inflammations and epilepsy to a sometime laxative, cough remedy and latterly anticancer application. Some more recent writers still seem to deem the herb worthy of inclusion and presumably, hence, use. Chevallier and Hoffman we have seen recommend its use for coughs, colds, catarrh and wider applications. Menzies Trull, categorizing its primary action as demulcent expectorant, gives the many traditional uses and introduces application in malignant conditions. Wood tells us the leaves and flowers are used together; he notes an affinity to the lymphatic system and thus an indication in lymphatic stagnation and swollen glands together with dry skin and constipation. He notes too its use in cancer of the breast, lymphatics, lungs and skin, citing Hall’s recommendation in changes in components of the blood that may foreshadow cancer.
Bartram records the plant’s actions as mild antiseptic, soothing expectorant, used in bronchitis, children’s chest complaints and persistent cough; also for mouth ulcers, cystitis with hot acid urine, urethritis, vaginal trichomonas, and fibroids as a douche to ease pain. It is internally and externally antineoplastic, he says, used in cancer of the lungs, alimentary canal and breast. He makes the same reference as Potter’s Bulletin to the lady with throat cancer. Williamson too has a broad enough coverage; ‘it has been used in syrups for coughs and colds, bronchitis and catarrh; and externally for skin inflammation. Antiinflammatory and diuretic effects have been reported for a leaf extract. It is reputed to be expectorant and anti-microbial due to saponin content’.