African Violets

African Violet

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, East Africa was ruled by
Germany through district officers, one of whom deserves the gratitude
of houseplant enthusiasts today: this was Baron Walter von Saint
Paul-llaire who had an interest in botany. His father, Baron Ulrich von Saint
Paul-lllaire, was a patron of the botanic garden at Herrinhausen near
Hanover where Herman Wendland was director, and so Baron Walter
would send plant material home whenever he found anything that looked interesting.

Whilst on a tour of his territory in 1892 in the coastal area near Tanga,
Baron Walter found a colony of low-growing, hairy- and fleshy-leaved
plants with small single flowers of intense blue. He collected samples of
the live plants and seed capsules. Later in this tour of the East Usambara
Mountains, he collected material from another colony of these plants at
around 3,000ft (900m). All the plant material was sent to his father in
Germany, who grew plants from the seed and shared them with Wendland.
The latter, a taxonomist, realized that these plants were of an
unknown genus, and it was he who described it and named it: Saintpaulia in
honor of the Saint Paul-lllaires, and the species name S. ionantha from
the Greek for a violet-like flower.

Although we know today that Baron Walter collected two species on
his tour in 1892, it is apparent that Wendland had only considered the
plant material collected at Tanga. The second sample of plant material
collected in the East Usambara Mountains lived in botanic gardens as S.
kewensis, a variant of S. ionantha.

Over the years, more Saintpaulia species have been found by a number of
collectors, some within two or three years of the first, and have been
identified and described by B.L. Burtt and others. All the species have
been found in a comparatively small region of East Africa and nowhere
else in the world. At present the following are known: twenty identified
and described species, one other recently discovered, six variants and two
natural hybrids; each has its own tiny separate habitat area.

All species have single flowers with five lobes, of which the upper two
are smaller than the lower three, combining into a very short corolla
attached to a calyx that has five sharp-pointed sepals. The flower color is
blue, ranging from a very pale shade that is nearly white, to deep purple.
The leaves are variously hairy, the hairs ranging from few to many and
from short to long, in shades of green from light to dark. Some species are
rosette-forming, with very short leaf internodes, whilst others have long
internodes with trailing and branching growth. Also within the species
the growth may be of large or tiny size.

Thus hybridists have been able to breed rosette types from species
including S. ionantha, S. confusa, S. difficilis, S. grandifolia and S. orbicularis;
miniature types from S. pusilla and S. shumensis, the former of which is
now unfortunately extinct; and trailing types from S. grotei, S.
magungensis, S. m. minima and S. pendula.

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