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8/22/2006

Death by Violets

For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

For many years in my twenties and thirties, I worked as a landscape architect. It was the perfect profession for me because I love plants, and I enjoy designing people's outdoor environments. And, although I am a bit embarrassed to admit, I greatly enjoy spending other people's money.

Early on, when I first began my business, I landed a design job for a newly wealthy client. The couple, a handsome young attorney and his stunningly beautiful trophy wife, had just built an expansive house in the fashionable suburbs of the city. They hired me to create a total environment, with a swimming pool, multilevel decks, a variety of gardens, with patios, a water feature and a gazebo.

I understood very well what they wanted, which was lots of bling, something to make their neighbors envious. They wanted a landscape that shouted, "Money lives here."

When the job was finished, they threw a party, in honor of my work. Invited were the young movers and shakers of the community, in other words, more people like my clients. From the contacts I made at that party, I was busy with work for the next seven years and it established me as the guy to call if you had bottomless pockets for your landscape project.

The next substantial project I took on was for a wealthy bachelor. He owned several thousand acres of ranch land and chose a pristine location at the base of a bluff to build his home. An entire hillside cliff was dismantled by stonecutters who chiseled the limestone into building blocks for the house. A house in France was bought and dismantled simply for the eighty seven massive, seventeenth century doors. Another house in England was purchased for the four hundred year old English oak door frames, flooring and mantle pieces. A factory in San Francisco was torn down and the railroad car length wooden beams were transported to the site to become hand-waxed, exposed beams in the house. Slate from South America made the one hundred and three patio-sized steps leading to the front door; Italian marble covered the bathrooms. An attached arboretum held a pool, hot tub and steam rooms with a waterfall backdrop made of boulders with sculpture commissioned for the project.

My job, first, was to take the remains of dismantled bluffs behind the house and rebuild them into natural looking, aged stone cliff faces, building two fifty foot waterfalls and pools below with thousands of well chosen plants. To return the bluff colors to their mossy origins, I used a combination of buttermilk, horse manure and moss, blended into a paste and painted on the stone. I spent two years there, creating an environment of natural beauty with a sophisticated look. Wildflowers and herbs were planted between the house-sized boulders in the front lawn. Wild edible water plants edged the spring-fed ponds. Hundreds of thousands of spring bulbs were shipped from Holland, hand picked for the lawns and beds.

After the completion of the house, the owner moved in. He hired a private chef, a woman I'll call Peggy, and her caretaker/chauffeur husband, Bob. I became well aquatinted with Peggy and Bob as I was on site nearly every day, overseeing my landscape crews or ordering more plants.

Peggy and I became friends, primarily over our common interest in food. She knew I had enthusiasm for edible wild plants and culinary herbs and so we occasionally exchanged recipes. When a lavish party was planned at the house, Peggy would invite me in beforehand to taste this item or that and ask my opinion.

It was springtime and there were sweeping banks of lovely purple violets along the bluffs and creeks below the house. I'd been telling Peggy about candying violets and so one day she asked me to show her how I did it.

The house had a public kitchen attached to the spacious dining room. A four hundred year old redwood had been felled to make the dining table, which was a simple plank, five feet wide and long enough to seat forty. Next to that were several marble topped counters with hammered copper sinks and antique, gold plated French fixtures.

Behind that, was the service kitchen, the real working space. I brought in a basket of violets I had picked and Peggy broke an egg and separated it. I frothed up the egg white with a fork and began dipping the blossoms into the egg, then dropping them into a plastic bag of sugar and shaking them. Quickly we had a few dozen violet blossoms laid out on waxed paper to dry.

"I understand," Peggy said. "I had no idea it was so easy."

I reminded her to dry the violets in a barely warm oven or food dehydrator, then put them into airtight containers until ready to use (and away from direct light, which would ruin their color).

I learned there was to be a big party in a few days, a political fundraiser. Actually there would be two parties, two hundred people in each. The first group would include the governor of the state, the Attorney General, a couple of Senators and other bigwigs of the state's political machine, along with lots of the local upper crust of society.

Peggy had decided she would use candied violets to decorate her many desserts she was preparing and told me of her plan. Bob was to gather the blossoms. I asked him if he knew the plant we were talking about and showed him a patch of violets near the house.

"Oh, yes, I can see. I know what to pick," Bob had said.

I stopped by on the day of the party to make sure my crews had not left any tools or unplanted plants where the guests could see them.

"Jim," Peggy called out from the front door of the house when she say me walking up the steps. "Come and check my violets, I need your opinion," she said with a concerned voice.

When I got into the kitchen, I saw huge platters of candied violets, piled high. There were thousands of candied violets and I complimented her on her work.

"Something's wrong," Peggy began. "Taste one and tell me what you think." I chose a couple of violets nearest me from the platter and popped them in my mouth. I chewed, enjoying the sweetness. Suddenly, my throat turned numb. My tongue, also. I evidently looked startled because Peggy handed me a glass of water and asked, "Is this the way they are supposed to taste?"

After I sputtered and choked a bit and drank the water down, I muttered, "No. Those aren't violets, what are they?"

We turned to Bob, who was kind of a sweet but not terribly bright, doofus. Bob said, "Those are the ones you told me to pick, I just do what I'm told." "Show me where you picked them," I said, still not certain what the mistake was. A ray of sunshine was coming through the window, hitting the platters of violets, making their frosty purple color seem to glow.

Peggy and I followed Bob past the golf green, along the nature trail at the base of the waterfall until Bob pointed and said, "Here. This is where I picked the violets."

My mouth dropped open. Peggy's eyes got wide. What we were looking at was a tennis court-sized bed of vinca minor. Bob had simply assumed that anything with a lavender flower, had to be a violet. Never mind that one plant was a trailing groundcover with small leaves along the runners and that the other, the violets, grew in individual clumps with heart-shaped leaves. To him, if it was purple, it was a violet.

At that time I had no idea if vinca minor was edible. From the numbness in my throat and tongue, I assumed they were probably poison. My mind was spinning. Imagine it, I thought to myself, the headlines in the morning news would read, "Governor dies with violets in mouth."

I thought through the impact of the deaths of the leaders of the political party in power, how Bob might have single-handedly killed off the power structure of the state and local governments, bringing in a progressive party.

Peggy must have been thinking the same thing. She looked at me and said, "I need to get back to the kitchen. I have a new menu to put together for the party tonight."

Only years later did I learn from a pharmacist that vinca minor isn't poisonous, but not recommended for eating. It had minor medicinal properties in historic medicines. The politicians wouldn't have been killed, just very uncomfortable for an hour or so while they had their stomachs pumped., which, looking back, might have been fun.

The lessons for us were many. First, to always know the correct identity of the plant before you eat it. Second, don't judge a flower by its color. And third, politicians are lucky that people taste food beforehand, before serving it.

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