In my memory, my grandmother sits knitting in a sunny bay window surrounded by her African violets. I wonder how many she had - fifty? - and they were always in excellent condition, blooming happily. Every month of so she would put newspapers on the big dining room table and transfer all the little pots over there for inspection, trimming, repotting if necessary. Some of the violets were on shelves in the windows, but there was also a Victorian multi-tiered iron plant stand with many swiveling arms that held some of her favorites.
In the winters, when she and my grandfather went to Florida for a couple of months, my mother and I would be in charge of watering the plants. As a little girl I remember wanting to help, but being given precise instructions about watering sparingly and only from the bottom, and never spilling water on the leaves. The special pots had wicks in the base that soaked up water slowly from the saucers to prevent -- I guess -- overwatering and root or crown rot. I was allowed to help, but always did it seriousness and a certain amount of trepidation. As a result I grew up thinking of African violets as fussy old lady plants and not very desirable. Though I certainly inherited my grandmother's green thumb, I've never yet had an African violet in my house.
That changed last week when we received this temporary visitor to care for while its owners are in Europe. Not only did it ask to have its portrait drawn, I think it's also telling me it's time to break down and get one or two of my own to fuss over, now that I'm clearly becoming an, ahem, older Victorian lady myself.
Oddly, they remind a bit of one of my most favorite woodland flowers of all, the hepatica. The leaves aren't similar, but the form and soft colors of the flower have an affinity. Better yet, they bloom all year round.
I just learned that African violets belong to the intriguingly-named genus Saintpaulia, are native to the cloud forests of Tanzania and Kenya, and that some of the species are endangered or threatened. They range from "micro" (3 inches or less in diameter) to "giant" (12-16 inches). Here's how they came to the attention of European botanists:
The genus is named after Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire (1860–1910), the district commissioner of Tanga province who discovered the plant in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in Africa in 1892 and sent seeds back to his father, an amateur botanist in Germany. Two British plant enthusiasts, Sir John Kirk and Reverend W.E. Taylor, had earlier collected and submitted specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1884 and 1887 respectively, but the quality of specimens was insufficient to permit scientific description at that time. The genus Saintpaulia, and original species S. ionantha, were scientifically described by H. Wendland in 1893.
And I guess it's true about spilling water on the leaves:
Saintpaulias are highly sensitive to temperature changes, especially rapid leaf cooling. Spilling cold water on African violet leaves causes discoloration. This is thought to be because rapid leaf cooling causes cell vaculole collapse in the palisade mesophyll cells.
OK! I stand twice forewarned.