Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
African Violets in the U.S.
Though they are a very common houseplant in the U.S. today, African violets were an oddity familiar only to European plant enthusiasts for about 35 years after their discovery in East Africa in the late 1800's. In the 1930's the Armacost and Royston nursery in Los Angeles had heard about the discovery of African violets, and speculated that they might be ideally suited for growing in the home.
They requested plants from collectors in England and Germany, and began a series of selections to choose those plants that performed best in typical household environments. For five years, they methodically sorted through thousands of plants they propagated to find the best ones, yielding ten varieties, now known as the "Original Ten". These were sold to the public for the first time in the mid-1930's.
The "Original Ten" are still important today because they are the ancestors of many modern varieties. The variety 'Blue Boy' was the only one of this group that mutated naturally, plus it contained a recessive red gene. 'Blue Boy' has been credited with producing the first double flowered African violets in 1939 and the first pink ones in 1940. Later crosses of blue and pink flowered plants yielded white flowers in 1942. Various different leaf and flower forms emerged over the years, and in the late 1950's and early 1960's variegated foliage was the next big breeding breakthrough.
As if natural mutation and variation were not enough, plant breeders created an explosion of different plant forms and colors in the 1960's and 1970's by inducing mutations with chemicals in the laboratory. The development of miniature varieties by hybridizing miniature species also began during these years. This explosion has continued, with no signs of slowing down in the U.S. and worldwide. The latest development came in the 1990's with the first releases of varieties with yellow splashes and streaks. Maybe someday we'll see a true red or orange? Time will tell.