Popular in Pots; Threatened at Home

My grandmother kept African violets in a multi-leveled metal frame near the picture window at one end of the living room. She was very protective of them, which I suppose only made us more curious about them. I’m guessing we must of knocked over the whole stand at least once while ‘horsing around’. I of course feel badly looking back on our disinterest in her African violets, because one thing I do remember is that they we all rather healthy looking, and that is not any easy thing to do.

Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire
Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire

While members of the genus Saintpaulia are indeed of African origin, they are not violets. They were discovered in 1892 by Western science through the collecting of Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, who was then governor (or district commissioner) of German East Africa (which included modern-day Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and a small part of Kenya; it was divided up among other European countries in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919). Von Saint Paul-Illaire sent plant materials back to his father in Germany, where they immediately became popular in horticultural circles. By 1894 they were being imported into the United States.

In 1893 they were formally described by Herman Wendlan at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Herrenhausen (a part of Hannover). Saintpaulia ionanthe is the wild species from which most cultivars have been derived. It is a diverse genus; B.L. Burtt produced monographs on the genus in 1958 and 1964 and described 20 different species. More recently molecular genetic analysis has reduced the number to nine species, eight subspecies and two varieties. They are found throughout eastern African, but each species has a limited distribution, which leaves them vulnerable to extinction. Many species are restricted to high latitudes in the Usambara Mountains, a region of tropical rain forest.

S. ionanthe in the wild
S. ionanthe in the wild

Saintpaulia are found along stream courses, but not next to the water itself. They have very fine roots and are easily drowned (as many a beginning African violet owner has found by overwatering them). They tend to grow in pockets of organic-rich soil on rock outcrops. The Usambaras are Precambrian rock, so their mineralogy tends to resemble that of granite and be quite acidic.

In their native range Saintpaulia species are under threat from logging of the rainforest. They are adapted to grow in the shade of tall trees, and when they are cut down, the soil dries out and the light intensifies, killing the Saintpaulia.

Most cultivars derive from S. ionanthe because as a lowland species it is more adapted to the conditions associated with most households.

The wild species have two habits: rosette and trailing, with the former more often cultivated. The fleshy leaves are rounded to oval and hairy, particularly around the edges. Wild species have five-lobed blue, purple, violet, or white flowers with a velvety texture. They are held up in loose panicles and supported by flesh peduncle.

Potted African violet
Potted African violet

African violets are a challenge to grow, which is not surprising, given the stability of their native habitat. They don’t like changes in temperature, preferring it to be 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and about 10 degrees cooler at night. Oddly—for a plant that grows in rain forest—it is important not to get their leaves wet while watering them. It causes brown spots to develop. In addition, the water should be room temperature or lukewarm. They prefer south-facing windows, but in the summer it is better to have a sheer curtain across the window to protect the plants from burning.

When you look up “African violet” on line, you will find mostly website that tell you how to take care of them. Getting them to flower is no mean feat and requires a schedule of fertilizing in addition to closely monitoring the amount of light and water they get.


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