University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
ORIGINS OF AFRICAN VIOLETS AND IMPATIENS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
what do two very different plants--the African Violet and
common? Surprisingly, both originally
came from the mountains of East Africa. These are perhaps our most
houseplant and most common bedding plant, respectively. The route
each took to
end up in our gardens and homes, and the connection between the two,
unfamiliar with Africa may think of it as desert or grasslands where
and zebras roam. The ancient Usambara Mountains of Kenya and
of which the famous Mt. Kilimanjaro is a part, provide an oasis of
dampness in an otherwise dry region.
Many species come from the Nguru mountains of Tanzania.
the disappearing humid and shady conditions of this area that were
home to the
Africa Violet (Saintpaulia ionanatha) and its hybrids, a
member of the Gesneriad family
(Gesneriaceae). The genus name honors the 16th century Swiss
naturalist Conrad Gessner, the father of modern zoology and a
the species name being Greek for violet. It is not a violet at all,
family indicates, but was called this since it looks similar to one.
St. Paul-Illaire, governor of a northeastern province of Tanganyika,
of Tanzania, first “officially” discovered the African violet in
1892. Although plants had been sent to the Kew Royal
Botanic Gardens in London previously, they were of poor quality so
identified. An amateur botanist, the
Baron collected seeds and specimens and sent them to his father in
Germany, who also was interested in botany.
He, in turn, gave these to his friend and director of Berlin's Royal
Botanic Garden, Herman
Wendland. It is he who identified this
as a “new” genus, and named it after its discoverer.
went by, and seeds and plants found their way around Europe. Then in
Los Angeles nursery of Armacost and Royston realized the commercial
of this plant. They obtained seeds from Europe, grew thousands of
discarded all but the best hundred, and then later all but the best
ten. It is
from their ten selections that the thousands available today have
Boy' was the first main parent, followed by its red sport or
mutation. Then in
1939 a double blue was developed, a year later a single pink called
Beauty,' and then a seedling with two leaf colors. Since then,
flower size has
increased from the one-inch size of the original species to more
inches. Leaves now include many shapes, edges, and patterns.
the 1960s, breeders used two species (pusilla and shumensis) to
miniature African Violets. Another species (grotei) was
used to create trailing cultivars. Unfortunately,
these species, the original one (ionantha), and others among
species in this genus, are threatened with extinction in the wild.
understory of the Usambara forests has largely disappeared with the
trees for timber and tea plantations, and with it many such
about impatiens? The damp Usambara
Mountains above 6,000 feet serve as the original home to most of our
garden impatiens (Impatiens walleriana and hybrids), a member
the Balsam or Impatiens family (Balsaminaceae). In addition, many
found from Africa to Asia, including the South Pacific.
the Pacific Island of New Guinea which gives us the ever-popular,
Guinea impatiens (I. hawkeri).
These popular bedding plants are relatively new to our
gardens, compared to their kin, coming from a joint
exploration to New Guinea in 1970 by the U.S.D.A. and Pennyslvania’s
Gardens. Since then, our many hybrids
today come from crosses of the New Guinea species with others from
Java and the
former species name for the shade impatiens (sultani) gives
another common name of Sultana.
It was named for the Sultan of Zanzibar, from whose cool and moist
plant was first introduced in 1896. From
the original straggly plants with few leaves and harsh-pink flowers,
in Europe and the U.S. have developed the many cultivars we know
also bred plants to withstand heat, as long as there is shade and
plant may be known by the names "busy bizzie," "jewel plant,"
or "touch-me-not" due to its "impatience" in holding its
seeds. The seed capsules ripen quickly, exploding rapidly with the
sending seeds far from the mother plant. This trait is not seen in
varieties, which are bred to not set seed.
learn more about the origins of these and many other plants in
John Grimshaw's book, The Gardener's Atlas, available from
used book sellers. In this book he covers the
origins, discovery, and cultivation of many of the more common
garden plants of