Violet lemonade out of lemons: Recipe for a springtime tradition born out of the pandemic

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

In the spring of 2020, in the thick of the fear of the unknown, my then 4-year-old daughter and I spent warm afternoons picking flowers and foraging. I was determined to make her remember our little piece of Western North Carolina as a haven, not a hideout from the pandemic we still didn't quite understand. 

We munched chickweed from the side yard, plucking it from between the growing snow peas. We nibbled on redbuds and wild violets like rabbits. I hid little jewels among the roots of the trees and the banks of the little creek that flowed at the foot of our yard. I credited fairies for the surprise gifts.

These wild violets are edible.

My husband, on leave from teaching, drew up scavenger hunts so my preschooler kept active while her school was shuttered. She was tasked with finding mushrooms, bunnies, rocks and flowers. It was a time of magic in our little half-acre bubble on the edge of the forest. 

As for the violets, we learned that they were not only edible but held their own magic. As delicate as they were, they still remained poised when painted with sugar water and left to dry. We used them to decorate the carrot cupcakes we baked on the weekends.

Healthier Southern Cooking:Eric and Shanna Jones on how to get full flavor with less junk

Cocktail:This Absinthe Cocktail is simple, refreshing, and packs a punch

The violets were so abundant, we picked them by the quart. I learned to make simple syrup with the blossoms. A combination of water and flowers steeped overnight and then sweetened with sugar renders a light purple syrup that gets brighter with a squeeze of lemon. Add even more lemon juice, and a chemical reaction between the flowers and the acid turns the syrup vivid pink. Naturally, we made lemonade.

Violet lemonade, on the edge of a Western North Carolina porch.

There are few things that can delight a small child more than turning backyard flowers into a purple, drinkable liquid that magically turns fuchsia. The following spring, we made violet syrup again, even though we were no longer quarantined in our yard. We sipped it while painting pictures on the porch, then drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a hike.

This spring, we're in a new city and I sometimes worry about my daughter, who lost her half-acre wonderland with its bunnies, mushrooms and wildflowers, and doesn't have nearby mountains to hike.

Drinks:This Hurricane Cocktail doesn't need bad weather to taste good

On the first day my daughter was able to go to her classes maskless since preschool, we walked home through the grassy, rolling park that separates our neighborhood from her elementary school. I pointed out the rapidly greening trees and wondered if she'd noticed the lack of redbuds. 

A handful of wild violets, plucked on the way home from school.

We wandered into a copse of trees at the bottom of the hill and spied a wild violet, then another, and finally mounds of them. We collected handfuls of flowers, shoving them into my water bottle. My daughter giggled happily, knowing violet lemonade was coming. 

She shouted in the joyous way only small children can that she'd, "always remember this as a child." I took that to mean, in her 6-year-old way, that it's the magical moments she'd return to when she looked back on this spring, this part of yet another new chapter.

How to make violet lemonade

To make this syrup, you must use only common wild violets. African violets are not edible. Violets have other inedible lookalikes, so be absolutely sure you know what you're harvesting. Consult a book or foraging expert if you're unsure. Also, do not harvest flowers from an area that's been chemical treated with herbicide or pesticide. Again, if you're unsure, don't pick. 

This recipe can be scaled up. 

Ingredients

2 cups of wild violets, triple-washed in cold water with stems and calyxes removed

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

Juice of one lemon

Instructions

Wash the violets well and place them in a heat-safe glass mason jar. Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat until no longer boiling. Pour the hot water over the violets. Let sit at room temperature for 24 hours. The liquid should turn blue. 

Strain the flowers out of the water, reserving the liquid. Place the liquid in a small saucepan over very low heat, then stir the sugar into the violet liquid until it's dissolved. Remove from heat and cool. 

Add cooled syrup to a glass, then slowly add the lemon juice and watch the syrup change colors. Add ice and enjoy. 

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com