Field of Science

Cordial Chemistry: Syrup of Violets

Today's talk at the Chemical Heritage Foundation was by one of my fellow Fellows, Rebecca Laroche, on syrup of violets and Robert Boyle. It had long been known that adding an acidic material, such as lemon juice, to syrup of violets turned it a rose color. (More creepily, kids apparently used to hold pansies, also a member of the viola family, over ant hills to watch them change color, presumably from the formic acid produced by the ants.) Boyle is credited with the discovery that this botanical extract also changed color when exposed to alkalis, turning green (see his report here). This led to the development of a panel of pH sensitive indicators, helpful in chemical analysis in Boyle's time and now.

The color changes are due to the anthocyanins in the violets (the same thing that makes red cabbage change color with pH). Syrup of violets is not hard to make, you can find a modern recipe here, not much changed from the older recipes (see an assortment here), and you can buy it.

After Rebecca's talk a group of us went to lunch and, quite serendipitously, on the menu were drinks made with syrup of violets. Since some of us had writing to do this afternoon, we eschewed the vodka versions, but gave the club soda tonics a whirl. I wanted to see what happened when you added acid, would I get a pale rose drink? Alas, it seems not.

Turns out that commercial syrup of violets has citric acid added to it, which turns the pure syrup red, or it would if artificial colors were not added to make it violet again. Since it's already in the red form, adding more acid doesn't change the color.