University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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ORIGINS OF AFRICAN VIOLETS AND IMPATIENS
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 

So just what do two very different plants--the African Violet and impatiens--have in common?  Surprisingly, both originally came from the mountains of East Africa. These are perhaps our most common 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, is quite fascinating.
           
Anyone unfamiliar with Africa may think of it as desert or grasslands where elephants and zebras roam. The ancient Usambara Mountains of Kenya and Tanzania, however, of which the famous Mt. Kilimanjaro is a part, provide an oasis of humidity and dampness in an otherwise dry region.  Many species come from the Nguru mountains of Tanzania.
          
It is 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 botanist, with the species name being Greek for violet. It is not a violet at all, as the family indicates, but was called this since it looks similar to one.
           
Baron St. Paul-Illaire, governor of a northeastern province of Tanganyika, now part 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 couldn’t be 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. 
           
Years went by, and seeds and plants found their way around Europe. Then in 1925 the Los Angeles nursery of Armacost and Royston realized the commercial potential of this plant. They obtained seeds from Europe, grew thousands of seedlings, 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 been derived.
           
'Blue 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 'Pink 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 than three inches. Leaves now include many shapes, edges, and patterns.
           
During the 1960s, breeders used two species (pusilla and shumensis) to create miniature African Violets. Another species (grotei) was used to create trailing cultivars.  Unfortunately, these species, the original one (ionantha), and others among the 20 species in this genus, are threatened with extinction in the wild. The understory of the Usambara forests has largely disappeared with the clearing of trees for timber and tea plantations, and with it many such important species of plants.
           
So what about impatiens?  The damp Usambara Mountains above 6,000 feet serve as the original home to most of our shade-loving garden impatiens (Impatiens walleriana and hybrids), a member of the Balsam or Impatiens family (Balsaminaceae). In addition, many species are found from Africa to Asia, including the South Pacific.
           
It is the Pacific Island of New Guinea which gives us the ever-popular, sun-loving New 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 Longwood Gardens.  Since then, our many hybrids today come from crosses of the New Guinea species with others from Java and the Celebes islands.
           
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 lands this plant was first introduced in 1896.  From the original straggly plants with few leaves and harsh-pink flowers, breeders in Europe and the U.S. have developed the many cultivars we know today. They've also bred plants to withstand heat, as long as there is shade and moisture.
           
This 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 least touch, sending seeds far from the mother plant. This trait is not seen in many garden varieties, which are bred to not set seed.
           
You can learn more about the origins of these and many other plants in botanist Dr. 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 the world.


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