The Early History Of The Saintpaulia

IDENTITY - The African Violet holds no kinship to any true violet, even though it does come from Africa, and its usual deep purple blooms are of violet color and form. Actually it is a member of the Gesneriad family, to which also belong the Gloxinia, Columneas, Episcias, Achimines, and other charming 'Kissing Cousins.' Gesneriads are a remarkably varied assortment of plants, embracing herbs, shrubs, vines, and even small trees. Many even grow on limbs and trunks of trees. Violets of our woods and fields, and Pansies of our gardens, belong in an entirely different and not even related field, the Violacveae, which is far removed from the Gesneriaceae.

It was Hofmarchal Herman Wendland, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, at Herrenhausen, Germany, who named the plant 'Saintpaulia' for the Saint Paul-lllaire family, described it in Latin, and gave it the Species name of 'lonantha,' which means 'with violet-like flowers.'

DISCOVERY - The African Violet was discovered by Baron Walter von Paul-lllaire in 1892, growing in the wilds of East Africa, while he was District Governor of German East Africa.

Walter was born of German parents in 1860 and grew up in the atmosphere of a family keenly interested in plants and trees, who observed and enjoyed the beauty of nature and spent much time in beautifying their lovely home. His father, Ulrich, had a collection of over 300 kinds of Orchids, and many other plants he had collected on his tropical travels. He was the author of many articles on trees, shrubs, vines, vegetables, and flowers. He made frequent visits to England and France where he became acquainted with a great number of beautiful country estates, and observed much about the proper use of plants in landscaping. The constant care of his estate became a factor in the foundation of the German Dendrological Society, a group of people giving much time to the study and beautification of trees and forests.

In 1892, while Walter von Saint Paul was the Imperial Captain of Usambara, a province of North East Tanganyika, in the Territory of East Africa, he owned many large plantations of vanilla and rubber trees. There is an interesting story that while walking in the tropical forests with his future wife. Walter found some lovely plants growing in wooded places in the crevices and cracks of limestone rocks of caves near the mouth of the river, and also in rich soil with plenty of vegetable matter, a location about 150 feet above sea level.

He also found these same little plants—some of them slightly different in color of flowers, but all blue—growing even more plentifully in shaded locations on granite or gneiss-rock in the primeval forests of the Usambara mountains, where they knew warm rains, some 2500 feet above sea level.

Walter gathered some of these charming little plants and sent them—perhaps in a dried state with seed-pods on them—to his father, Ulrich, back in Fischbach, Silesia, Germany. From these seed Ulrich grew African Violets, becoming the FIRST PERSON EVER TO GROW AFRICAN VIOLETS. Evidently, he thought highly of their beauty, and of their commercial possibilities; because he gave specimens to a well-known botanist, Herman Wendland, desiring him to identify and name the plants. Herman also had a large collection of Orchids and a wide knowledge of tropical plants.

The following year, 1893, Herman exhibited the African Violet as a botanical specimen in the Ghent Quinquinnial, at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hanover, Germany, a show of great importance to many European horticulturists. The first time ever shown, and judged by a learned and competent jury of seven, it shared with another kind of plant, the Eulophiella, the honor of being the most botanically interesting plant in the exhibition. It was spoken of as being one of the daintiest hothouse plants because of its enhancing beauty. (Imagine: This was the original Saintpaulia lonantha, far eclipsed in beauty by our specimen of today!!!). Flowering for the first time 2,000 miles from its native haunts, it im­mediately enjoyed immense popularity.

At this time, ownership rights to this marvelous subject, blooming when flowers are rarest, belonged to the commercial plantsmen, Ernst Senary, of Erfurt, Germany, who became the first to offer the African Violet to continental Europe and to the world.

When they first carried the seed for sale, culture procedure for the plant was given as the same as for the Gloxinia.

Flowering plants were soon developed in the Royal Gardens of England, and several years later the two varieties that remained were Saintpaulia lonantha and Kewensis, a hybrid. Within two years after its discovery growing in the wilds of East Africa, it had found its way to the United States, via Europe. This information came through Mr. William A. Harris, a florist in Philadelphia. Mr. Harris had bought two plants from Mr. George Stump in 1893, who operated a florist busi­ness at 59th and 5th Avenue, N.Y. who had brought these plants from Germany after a visit there. It is thought they were Saintpaulia lonantha.

The quotation in the 1895 periodical, 'The Garden’: 'It grows in a rich open compost in shady warm quarters, and likes much moisture at its roots. The young off-sets which the plants make plentiful at the collar give the best plants if potted separately at the proper time.'

Within two years of its original flowering, it figured with top honors in five first-class horticultural periodicals. Actually, from the day of its discovery the African Violet has taken the horticultural world by storm.

Mr. Harris back In 1893 must have lost his plants, with nothing coming of them, and it was not until the early 1920s that seedlings began to find their way into the hands of American growers. In 1926 Armacost and Royston Orchid Specialists in Los Angeles imported seed from Senary in Germany and Sutton in England, and planted them in flats under the tables of Orchids. Little attention was paid to them until visitors began to notice them and interest was aroused. In 1926 this firm introduced a number of named varieties, such as Blue Boy, Admiral, Amethyst, Commodore, Neptune, Norseman, Sailor Boy and Viking. Blue Boy immediately captured the interest of the house-plant public. The excellence of these introductions gave great impetus to the cultivation of African Violets and is responsible for much of their popularity.

The seed purchased by Armacost and Royston Orchid in 1926. German seed: 'Blue Boy' and 'Sailor Boy' English seed: 'Admiral', 'Amethyst', 'Commodore', 'Mermaid', 'Neptune', Norseman', 'No.32' and 'Viking'.

The first written article appeared in Dec., 1936 In 'Better Homes and Gardens,' and describes a greenhouse filled with blooming African Violets. During this same period Mrs. William K. Dupont was doing extensive hybridizing with seed imported from Suttons in England. She developed the outstanding heavy foliage, known as Dupont foliage, and shared her plants generously. In 1939 a double blue appeared as a sport from Blue Boy.

In 1942 a pink violet was developed, and 'girl-type' foliage with a white base appeared In 1943, a white was developed from a pink and blue cross. In 1947, there was a 'red,' a bi-color, and many blues, whites, pinks, etc. with differ­ences in foliages.

Then in 1946, came the test of the popularity of our African Violets. Its impact upon human beings was realized when our beloved Dalene Rhodes Boyce Edens and Charles Hudson invited a mere handful of zealous African Violet collectors from six different states east of the Rockies to come to Atlanta for an African Violet Show sponsored by the H. G. Hastings Co. and held in their show room. Eight thousand people saw this show!!! This great manifestation of interest inspired the launching of the African Violet Society of America.

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