Heartsease: A Later Discovery

This violet does not appear in Dioscorides, Galen nor Pliny. It first appears among our authors in the 1500s. Parkinson tags ‘Pansyes’ or ‘Hearts ease’ to the end of the entry for garden violets, denoting them somewhat hotter and drier, yet very temperate. Their viscous or glutinous juice mollifies, though less so than mallows; like violets it is good for hot diseases of the lungs and chest, agues, convulsions and the falling sickness in children; the decoction is used to bathe those troubled with the itch or scabs; the juice or distilled water helps old sores; and it has a reputation for healing green wounds too, he says. Culpeper, under a separate entry from violets, says heart’s-ease is really saturnine (yet under the sign of Cancer) ‘something cold, viscous and slimy’; a strong decoction of the herbs and flowers, or syrup if preferred, is an excellent cure for venereal disease, the ‘French pox’, since the herb is ‘a gallant antivenereal’. It is the spirit of it, he says, which is good for convulsions in children, and the falling sickness, as well as a remedy for inflammations of the lungs and breasts, ‘pleurisy, scabs, itch, etc.’.

Dodoens and Fuchs differ little from Parkinson and Culpeper in designation of use, but diverge somewhat in their rationale. Fuchs names Viola tricolor a herb of Jupiter, warm and dry, in taste sticky and a little sharp or biting, little different from the temperament of comfrey It has a certain cutting power, he says, so that ‘nowadays’ they teach its use for asthmatics and inflammation of the chest. It can purge pus collected in the thorax and chest. Consequently, he adds, it is used to help epilepsy in children. It aids pruritus and eczema and all imperfections of the skin through its moderate sharpness and astringency; and because of its stickiness it heals ulcers. Dodoens agrees it is dry and temperate in cold and heat. It is again tempting to wonder, as in sweet violet, whether the falling sickness in children, referred to by the Renaissance authors here, might not be simply convulsions resulting from high temperature, but Dodoens on this matter is more specific; he says, ‘These floures boyled and drunken, do cure and stay the beginnings of the falling evill, or the disease of young children that fome and cast up froth (wherefore it is called in high Dutch Freyscham) [presumably frei Schaum, literally free foam]’. He continues, as others, with the whole herb to cleanse the lungs and breast, as very good for fevers and inward inflammations or heats. The final paragraph, referring to external and internal use of the powder in wine for healing wounds, is still in Latin in our copy, so whether an addition or translation omission is not clear.

Dodoens offers a number of names for the plant – in Greek flox and flogion, Latin Viola flammea, Flamma, ‘at this time’ Viola tricolor, herba trinitatis, iacea and herba clavellata, indicating some past tradition, but its source is obscure. In English he says the plant is called Pances, Love in idleness and Harts-ease, in French Pensee and Pensee menue. Gerard offers us four types of the plant: heartsease Viola tricolor; upright heartsease ‘Viola assurgens tricolor’; wilde pansies ‘Viola tricolor sylvestris’; and stony heartsease ‘Viola tricolor petraea’. If the attribution is correct, he perhaps solves the Greek source for us, saying ‘it seemeth to be the viola flammea, which Theophrastus calleth floga, which is also called flogion’, though it was clearly little repeated by other writers. Gerard adds other names, herba trinitatis, pensees in French, paunsies in English, live in idleness, cull me to you and three faces in a hood. For Gerard the herb is ‘obscurely cold, but more evidently moist, of tough and slimy juice, like mallow, hence it moistens and softens though to a lesser extent’. He repeats the familiar uses ‘as the later physitions write: for ague especially in children to combat ‘convulsions’ and fits of the falling sicknesse it is thought to cure’. Use for lungs, skin and ulcers follows; for the French disease too, attributed to a report of Costaeus: ‘it doth wonderfully ease the paines … and cureth the same’.

Bauhin reprises the above uses. He includes in addition the distilled water for inflammations and pains of the belly in children, and its use for angina, which is here angina of the throat, tonsillitis. He cites Camerarius on distillation of the leaves, stems and flowers to be drunk for 9 days or more by those with venereal disease, since it brings on a sweat. He cites Mattioli too who recommends similarly the distilled water to induce sweating, the herb being hot and dry. Bauhin adds how Mattioli says he has much experience of its use. In the 1554 text, Mattioli describes the herb, expresses doubt whether this iacea, ‘as it is called by some’ is that which some modern writers praise for ruptures of the intestines, as comfrey; and how some say it brings considerable help for those with breathing afflictions and inflammation of the lungs, and to heal itch and other blemishes of the skin. He makes no claims here regarding his own experience. Could this then perhaps date at least Mattioli’s exploration of the plant’s virtues, so that in a later manuscript he could claim wide experience in its use?

In the 18th century Miller has only a bare record; the leaves only are used ‘but seldom’. It is accounted mucilaginous and vulnerary, good to take off the gripes in children and to prevent fits arising from thence. I cannot find the plant in Quincy, Hill nor later Cullen. It does not appear in Cook nor Ellingwood.