University of Illinois Extension

African Violets

A popular indoor plant that can bring color on a dreary winter day is the African violet, one with a “worldly history,” said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Most everyone has owned or at least seen an African violet,” said Jennifer Schultz Nelson. “Because it is sold in such everyday places as grocery stores and discount giants, you might not think it’s a very exotic or exciting plant. But, in fact, the lowly African violet has a worldly history.”

Its introduction to the world beyond Africa dates back to 1892.

“At that time, most of East Africa was ruled by Germany and that nation had officers stationed in the region,” she related. “One of them was Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, who had an interest in botany. This interest was most likely fueled by his father, who was a long-time patron of the botanic garden at Herrinhausen, near Hanover, Germany.

“Baron Walter made houseplant history in 1892 when while touring in East Africa near Tanga in Tanzania, he found a low-growing plant with very hairy, fleshy leaves, and striking blue flowers.”

He collected samples of the plants and sent them to his father, who in turn shared some plants with Herman Wendland, director of the botanic garden at Herrinhausen. Wendland recognized that the plants 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.

“Today, we know this genus by the common name African violet,” said Schultz Nelson.

To date, there are 21 species, six variants, and two natural hybrids of African violets known.

“Each species has its own tiny specific habitat unique to East Africa,” she said. “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.”