By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Judged on its merits, the homely African violet is a pretty sweet houseplant.
With a modest amount of care, it will bloom continuously in a house or apartment. The foliage is tidy and attractive. Good varieties are cheap to buy, and, if you stick a cut leaf in a pot, it will produce a fresh plant in a month. So why haven't we got African violets lined up on every windowsill in our house?
It labors, of course, under the stereotype of being the granny plant. Sitting on the sill, it surrounds itself in old lace, if not arsenic. We should point out that we love grannies, but we find ourselves trapped in a world mesmerized by 20-year-olds leaping from one audio-visual platform to the next. How can an African violet compete with YouTube?
Ruth Rumsey, a spokeswoman for the African Violet Society of America, reports shrinking membership at the society's 300 clubs around the country. But interest in this humble houseplant continues. Violet fanciers have moved on to new and interesting varieties. Hobbyists still meet and hold shows, but much of the dialogue today is on Web blogs, said Ken Barbi, a violet fan and retired Air Force colonel in Annapolis.
He got hooked more than 20 years ago when his wife, Susan, also an Air Force officer, was posted to South Korea. Here, she said to him, keep my violets happy till I get back. African violets now consume a large part of their lives, though they have figured out how to travel without their babies suffering. (See box on violet care, Page 6.)
When their plants are in full array, they are brought up to a bright sunroom overlooking the woods. Otherwise, they are raised in a windowless room in the basement, where fluorescent lights sustain them. The walls are plastered with show ribbons.
Perfectly adequate violets are available at supermarkets and mass merchandisers. The key is to get them before they sit around too long in neglectful environments. But if you venture into the sphere of fancy hybrids, the modest care these plants need seems all the more worthwhile.
There are at least 18 flower types and almost as many leaf variations. Barbi displays a variety named Emerald City. Its green, pointed leaves are arranged like overlapping, radiating feathers. In the center, a stalk erupts carrying two dozen blossoms with 16 more in bud. Each flower is white, with violet streaks on three of the five petals. The petals sparkle in the light, like candied violas. This bicolor effect is the result of a desired mutation, and called a chimera in violet circles.
Emerald City is one of about 750 varieties that have been bred by Paul Sorano, whose nursery -- Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses, in Dolgeville, N.Y. ( http://www.lyndonlyon.com/) -- was established by his grandfather in 1954. Sorano is today among a shrinking brethren of full-time professional violet growers. He ships from May 1 to Nov. 1.
Unlike other violets, the chimeras cannot be propagated true from leaves, so Sorano has to raise them from new crowns. This is trickier and jacks up the price to a whopping $15 or so. Other show-quality varieties are less, about $5. In the world of choice and desirable plants, these figures are peanuts. African violets, we should note, are not true violets, but members of a genus of jungle herbs called Saintpaulia, which are native to East Africa.
Most violet blooms are no more than an inch across. A few years ago, a pink-flowered variety named Super Duper broke the three-inch barrier. Others followed, including Spectacular (white, edged violet) and Rhapsody in White. Sorano sells them for under $6. The hottest violet at the moment is a chimera from Japan named Yukako, desired for its weird green and blue pinwheel flower. At a show, "I was selling them for $50 a pop, and I couldn't keep up with demand," he said. One recently sold on eBay for $322, he said. "It's a bidding war that goes on," Sorano said. "People get caught up in it."
Fortunately, choice violets are available for a lot less. Barbi cradles a species plant named Saintpaulia velutina, mauve in bloom but now resting. He cradles it in his hands; its leaves are rounded. "It has a nice rosette pattern and shows very well in bloom," he said.
He is drawn, too, to those with variegated leaves, and miniatures. He holds aloft Irish Flirt, whose 14 blooms are green and white and heavily petaled. "They look like little cabbages," he said.
Most of the collection grows on a four-tier light table that Barbi built from one-inch PVC pipe. Each of the four shelves is bathed by four-foot fluorescent growing lamps.
The Barbis' treasured varieties and their diverse ilk "are far, far different from what you see in the supermarket, or what you had seen on your grandmother's windowsill," said Ralph "Rob" Robinson, a breeder and grower in Naples, N.Y., who ships year-round.
Robinson, founder of the Violet Barn ( http://www.robsviolet.com/), is confident that the breeding advances of the plant will assure a future for the violet.
And the hobby is taking off in other countries, notably Russia. Fanciers there "don't have a lot of money," Barbi said. "It's like the U.S. in the '40s and '50s. People are looking for activities that you can afford to do. It's not an expensive hobby."