Now the African violet is so commonplace it is easy to take for granted. It deserves respect, considering its exotic beginning.
The African violet isn’t really a violet. It just looks like a violet because of its flowers, so people call it a violet rather than its real name, saintpaula. Originally, it had only blue flowers.
But it really is African. That part of its name wasn’t advertising hype, like Häagen-Dazs ice cream that started in the Bronx in 1961, or the cameras named Kodak because George Eastman, a New York inventor, liked the letter K.
The African violet was discovered in 1892, when a man found small plants with hairy leaves and innocent blue flowers nestled in a cloud forest of the Usambara Mountains, in the NE part of Africa which is now Tanzania.
The man, a German official named Baron von Saint Paul-Illaire, was the district governor at a time when Germany controlled much of Africa. His discovery was fortunate for both the man and the plant, since the plant’s days would have otherwise been numbered. It was a plant that grew in shady, rocky ledges and originally nowhere else in the world. Its sole natural habitat would soon be threatened as the land was cleared for agriculture.
The man had both the sense to see what he had found and the resources that ultimately gave the plant to the world. The Baron sent seeds back to his father in Germany. The father, an amateur botanist, became involved with Holtkamp Greenhouses who developed the plant through the late 20s and 30s.
For years the plant was developed almost exclusively in Germany, and only arrived in the US from places in Europe. Maybe it needed the time to develop some of the characteristics that has now made it so popular. Skilled scientists gave it more colors, a robust nature and, best of all, the ability to hang onto its flowers. At the beginning, all the flowers would fall off if someone sneezed near it.
The African violet first arrived in the United States in 1926, in Nashville, Tennessee. Later, it was grown commercially in Southern California. But before it began to spread throughout the entire world, the African violet found southern homes to be a form of African violet heaven., with mild winters and lots of windows. The rest of the country needed climate-controlled houses, because of the awful winters. For years only rich people had African violets, except for the South.
My introduction to African violets was a casual encounter, a brief social visit with a lady many years my senior. I guess it was about 35 years ago, but that doesn’t matter. It was the only time I saw her and the visit rarely crosses my mind.
What does matter was a small gesture of generosity on her part and the difference this gesture had on my life all these years since.
Passing a window in her house, I saw flowering plants there. She saw my interest and told me they were African violets. No more than making conversation, I asked if they were hard to grow. She replied, “Not at all.” Then she reached out her hand, snapped off a leaf and offered it to me. “See for yourself,” she said.
“Take the leaf home, pin it to a curtain and forget about it for about a month.” I could handle that, especially the forgetting part. In fact, I started immediately. About a week later, I was rounding up clothes for the laundry. Guess what I found.
A month went by. The leaf, green, round and hairy, lay on a window sill. Then I remembered something else the lady said. Put the stem in something moist, like dirt. Wait some more.
Eventually, six or eight tiny leaves appeared where the stem emerged from the dirt. They turned into miniature copies of the plant in the window, my first African violet garden, the first of many.
Growing African violets became a major interest in my life. At one point I had half a room full, banks of florescent grow-light tubes humming, and the electric timer that controlled them making little mechanical sounds. I gave countless leaves away, and many plants, blooming in different colors. I never had to buy Christmas presents.
Then all my violets stopped growing and died one by one, the last a descendant from the one I started with. Their passing left an unexpectedly large hollow spot. The grow lights hung from their mounting, dark and silent. I knew how they felt.
My wife, seeing how much I missed my hobby, bought me two new plants, one with reddish flowers and one with blue. It was good to have violets again, but while the red one grew and bloomed, the blue one died. I saved only a single leaf, which produced three leaf-babies.The triplets are well and growing. I’m glad to rejoin the company of African violet lovers. But only in my own way.
Most see violets as a hobby. Some have turned violets into a science, especially those whose interest is commercial. Some have formed African violet societies whose ferocious goal to raise perfect violets is almost cult-like. Me, I just like to have some around and have something to share and give away.
And to think it all started with a single leaf and instructions to pin it to a curtain and forget about it for a month.