History of African Violets

History of the African Violet

In 1892 Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, the German governor of a northeastern province in Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania), found a low-growing plant with very hairy, fleshy leaves, and striking blue flowers growing among shaded rocky ledges in the Usambara Mountains.

He collected samples of these plants and sent them to his father, Baron Ulrich.  It should be noted that Baron Ulrich von Saint Paul-Illaire, was a longtime patron of the botanic garden at Herrinhausen, near Hanover, Germany. He was well acquainted with the botanic garden’s director, Herman Wendland.  Baron Ulrich shared his sons’ discovery with Herman Wendland who classified the plants in the Family Gesneriaceae.  But Wendland recognized that they were from a previously unknown genus. He named the genus Saintpaulia, in honor of the father and son who had shared their discovery with him.

In 1893 the first commercially produced plants were offered by Friedrich Benary in Erfurt, Germany. In 1926 Armacost and Royston of West Los Angeles, California imported seeds African violet seeds from Germany and England. Armacost and Royston used the resulting plants to develop ten new hybrid African violets. The original ten selected for release included Admiral, Amethyst, Blue Boy, Commodore, Mermaid Neptune, Norseman, Sailor Boy, Viking and #32.

Since that time African violets have become one of the world’s most popular houseplants not only in the US but in Europe also. Because of the tendency of saintpaulia hybrids to “sport” or mutate, many new characteristics have been introduced to African violet growers.  Some of the most important mutations include: girl foliage, variegated foliage, pink blossoms, double blossoms and chimerism.

To date, there are 21 species, six variants, and two natural hybrids of African violets have been identified in the wild. Each species has its own specific habitat unique to East Africa. African violets 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.

It is amazing and a reflection of the need of the human spirit to tinker, tweak and modify things around him.  In almost 120 years in the hands of collectors and growers this simple blue flowered plant has been transformed into a plant Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire may not have recognized as the outcome of his discovery.