Out of Africa

These horticultural hobbyists are no shrinking violets.

Harry and Linda Weber stand in their Loveland basement, gazing down at several dozen reluctant houseplants.

"If they don't start blooming more," she says, "they won't make it."

"No, they won't."

 
Bud Peen
 
Flower power: Doug and Barbara Crispin in their Violet 
Showcase.
Anthony Camera
Flower power: Doug and Barbara Crispin in their Violet Showcase.

Harry, a buzz-cut Vietnam vet, doesn't look like someone who would fret over a crop of dainty flowers. Linda, a former nurse, doesn't seem the type to be squeamish about hacking off a few droopy blossoms. Yet here they are, frowning and sighing.

"That one almost looks ready, don't you think?"

"I'm not sure. We'll have to see."

Harry is president of the Rocky Mountain African Violet Council. This weekend, the group will hold its 38th annual flower exhibition and sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens, titled "2001: A Violet Odyssey -- the Journey From Africa to the United States." Hundreds of horticultural hobbyists -- a genteel but feverish subculture that thrives in basements across Colorado -- will come up from underground to display African violets, buy African violets, judge African violets. Harry and Linda hope to make a respectable showing. But first they must convince their plants to cooperate.

"We're the new kids on the block," Harry says. "The dark horses."

The couple began their own odyssey five years ago, when Linda stopped by a Kmart and returned home with three plants. Today they have hundreds of plants that they water, fertilize, rotate, repot, prune, preen, spray, debud, groom. An hour here, an hour there, month after month. They fitted their basement with a ceiling fan. They installed fluorescent lights. They rigged up an automatic watering system. And yet they still won't know what they have until the night before the show.

"You're supposed to have fifteen or twenty fresh blossoms on each plant, depending on the size," Linda says. "I don't see that many right now."

"You can only do so much," Harry says. "You have to rely on them to do what they're supposed to do at the time you want them to do it. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. In the end, it's up to nature."


"It's an addiction."

"An obsession."

"A cult."

"You start off with two. Then two turns to twenty. Then twenty turns into fifty. Pretty soon you have 500."

"They multiply like little rabbits."

"They get under your skin."

"It's the colors. Drop-dead gorgeous."

"They're really easy to grow. You put them on the kitchen windowsill and they bloom for you all year long."

"My daughter says, 'Mom, when are you going to cut down?' But I have so many favorites. I love them all. I wouldn't know where to start."

"If someone said I had to give them up, I'd just be heartbroken."

"I'd have more in my house, but my cat eats the blossoms."

"Some of us idiots just keep going and going and getting more new ones each year. And there are always more new ones each year."

"There's been so much hybridizing, it's hard to come up with distinct, individual plants."

"Darwin would lose control."

"It's like hillbillies. You do it for too long, and eventually you end up with a bunch of idiot cousins."

"It's like Pez dispensers."

"Or Beanie Babies."

"Once you get started, you have to have them all."


In 1892, Oliver Hardy was born. Walt Whitman died. The first basketball game was played in Springfield, Massachusetts. Almalthea, the moon of Jupiter, was discovered. The matchbook was patented. Lizzie Borden was arrested. Macadamia nuts were planted in Hawaii. Ellis Island became an immigrant reception center. Grover Cleveland was elected president. And in the Usambara Mountains of East Africa, an obscure colonial official named Baron Walter von St. Paul looked down at a tiny purple flower and said, "Hmmm."

St. Paul, stiff, bearded and German, was governor of what is now Tanzania. He was also an amateur botanist. When he noticed the clump of low, hairy, thick-leafed plants with intense blue flowers during a tour of his territory, he harvested live samples, collected seeds and shipped them home. His father, also an amateur botanist, passed them along to Herman Wendland, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, who proclaimed them a new species: Saintpaulia (after the Baron's family) and ionantha (violet-like flower).

From the beginning, the African violet -- as Saintpaulia ionantha quickly became known, even though it is not related to the true violet -- was a hit. It shared the stage with the orchid at the International Horticulture show in London. It showed up in European greenhouses, seed houses and horticultural magazines. By the early 1900s, it had taken root in the United States. But few growers here or abroad knew what the weather was like in Tanzania, so the flowers struggled along and got a reputation for being sickly and temperamental.

Then in 1926, the Los Angeles greenhouses of Armacost and Royston cross-pollinated ten new and hearty varieties, including the landmark Blue Boy, which later spawned hybrids with double blossoms, single pink blossoms and white-colored "girl" leaves. In 1946, the first African violet show was held in Atlanta: Two hundred plants were exhibited, 10,000 people attended, and the African Violet Society of America was formed. A year later, African Violet magazine hit the stands, instantly becoming the growers' bible.

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