Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Discovering African Violets
Most everyone has owned or at least seen an African Violet. You might not think it's a very exotic or exciting plant, seeing as it's sold in such everyday places as the grocery store and local discount giants. But in fact, the lowly African Violet has a very worldly history.
Near the end of the nineteenth century, most of East Africa was ruled by Germany and had officers stationed in the region. One of them was Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, who had a personal interest in botany, most likely fueled by his father, Baron Ulrich von Saint Paul-Illaire, who was a longtime patron of the botanic garden at Herrinhausen, near Hanover, Germany. He was also well acquainted with the botanic garden's director, Herman Wendland.
Baron Walter made houseplant history in 1892 while touring the African lands he oversaw. Near Tanga, in Tanzania, he found a low-growing plant with very hairy, fleshy leaves, and striking blue flowers. He collected samples of these plants and sent them to his father, Baron Ulrich. He in turn shared some plants with Wendland, who recognized that they were from a previously unknown genus of the plant world. He named the genus Saintpaulia, in honor of the father and son who had shared their discovery with him. We know this genus by the common name African Violet.
To date, there are twenty-one species, six variants and two natural hybrids of African Violets known. An interesting fact is that each species has it's own tiny specific habitat unique to East Africa. They do not grow naturally anywhere else in the world. These wild species vary in all aspects of growth habit and form, and flowers range in color from nearly white to dark purple. Who knew that such a unique member of the plant world was being sold for $1.99 at your local grocery store? The colors and forms we see today are descendants of the original collections, a result of generations of careful breeding. But that story deserves a column of it's own....