Drew Brining of Hammonton is only 12, but already he's signed up with the Southern New Jersey African Violet Club.
He's even breeding his own plants.
It helps that his mother, Donna, is club president and owner of Fancy Bloomers, an African violet business. Still, he's unusual on two fronts: He's young and he's male in a segment of the horticultural world saddled with a "little old lady" image that just won't quit....Continue Reading
Back in the '50s and '60s, when the craze peaked, African violets were the favorite of stay-at-home moms and grandmothers. As Ruth Rumsey, editor of African Violet Magazine, puts it: "These were the ladies who used to put on their hats and gloves and go to the lunches."
Today, the African Violet Society of America is down to 6,000 members, from a high of 20,000 back in the day, and they're working hard to shed that "old lady" reputation.
Meanwhile, the number of violet breeders catering to collectors has shrunk from more than 75 in the 1950s to just a handful today.
Yet new and unusual African violets still captivate a hardy band of enthusiasts. And thanks to an exploding interest in hybridization that began in the 1980s, mass-produced variations of the genus Saintpaulia ionantha are available for as little as $1 a plant.
"And they're sold just about everywhere," says Trisha Spagnuolo of Marlton, a collector who grew up surrounded by violet-growing women and now heads Burlington County's violet club.
More than 16,000 registered varieties are out there, plus plenty of free agents, and African violets are considered the world's most popular blooming houseplant. While hobbyists typically share with each other or buy at shows, from breeders, or online, there's a blizzard of choices for amateurs on eBay and in grocery stores and big boxes, many developed by Holtkamp Greenhouses in Nashville.
These no-frills, mass-marketed plants are sometimes dismissed as "supermarket violets" or "noids," for "no I.D.'s" or identification. "People are just buying them as disposable blooming plants, a cash crop. If they stop blooming, they throw them away," says Georgene Albright of Oakdale, Pa., a master floral designer at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh and a columnist for African Violet Magazine for more than 20 years.
But the "noids" have exposed new generations to a plant that once caused near-stampedes at flower shows. And who knows? Some of these supermarket buyers could go on to become collectors.
"In a way, it's good that violets are for sale everywhere.
We've got more people growing them, and they're practically in every home," says Rob Robinson, who, with his wife, Olive Ma, owns The Violet Barn in Naples, N.Y., one of the few hybridizers left in the country.
"But it's bad in another way," he adds, "just because it made violets less special."
Tinari Greenhouses in Huntingdon Valley, founded in 1945 by the late Anne and Frank A. Tinari Sr., was once a powerhouse in African violet circles, introducing more than 500 hybrids to the market and growing 200,000 plants in six greenhouses in its heyday.
Today, says Frank Jr., who runs the business with his wife, Dee, "the box stores have changed everything." High fuel costs and impossibly cheap competition persuaded the couple to deactivate three greenhouses and end mail-order, which used to reach every state in the country and Bermuda.
They do no hybridizing anymore and grow only a few thousand violets for the casual buyer ($3.95 each), sometimes the children and grandchildren of longtime customers.
After 35 years of selling at the Philadelphia Flower Show, in a four-sided booth manned by 10 employees, the Tinaris stopped in 1996, when the show moved to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. "It got to be too much," says Frank, who has added orchids, firewood, and landscaping products to his inventory. Yet violets remain a favorite.
"Hobbyists are still out there," says Dee, "but people now just like them because they're pretty." African violets belong to the mostly tropical Gesneriad plant family; they're not true violets at all, having acquired their common name because they came from Africa and re semble the wood violet.
In 1892, Baron Walter von Saint Paul Illiare, the district governor of colonial German East Africa, became the first non-African to discover them, in the rain forests of the Us ambara Mountains of Tanza nia, formerly Tanganyika.
He sent seeds home to Ger many, where they were first commercially grown. In 1926, a California breeder devel oped 10 new hybrids, known as "the original 10" species, from which thousands of Afri can violet varieties have since descended.
The new kids barely resem ble their ancestors, which were small, single flowers in the purple-blue-white range, with weak stems and drop prone blooms.
The much-heartier modern violet is a wild-child mix of single, double, and triple blooms; rosette and trailer shapes; sizes from mini to standard; colors, including mauve, amethyst, cerise, salmon, and crimson; patterns, such as streaks, swirls, stripes, polka dots, and ruffly edges; and notched, scalloped, fluted, and variegated leaves.
"They're certainly getting more spectacular, and the combinations are getting more extreme," says Judy Smith, a collector from Laverock and member of the African Violet Society of Philadelphia.
Breeders are chasing the elusive primrose-yellow violet and fragrance, as well as brighter colors, more and bigger flowers, and unusual leaves.
"You can't make a breakthrough every year, but we've always got to come up with something new," says Robinson.
That's certainly driving Drew Brining, a sports-loving boy who's unself-consciously fond of violets. His current fave, the fuchsia-pink, goldstreaked Ness' Fantasy Gold, sparks fantasies of creating his very own hybrid.
"There's literally millions of possibilities," he says.
Contact garden writer Virginia A.
Smith at 215-854-5720 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs /gardening The right mix of water, light, etc. African violets have a finicky rap, but fans say it ain't so. They do concede this: It may take some experimenting to get the right mix of light, water, soil, fertilizer, temperature and humidity, pot size, and proper grooming.
Here's how it works: Light: 12-14 hours of filtered light per day, natural or fluorescent, or a combination. Insufficient light prevents blooming; direct sun burns leaves. Best exposures are east or west, but southern is OK during winter months, when sunlight is less strong. Rotate plants frequently.
Water: Keep moist, not soggy, and never completely dry. Water from the bottom -- keep it warm -- but never leave standing water.
Soil: Very light, porous potting mix. You can buy one made for violets or make your own, using vermiculite, perlite, and peat moss.
Fertilizer: Feed African violet formula when plants are in bloom. Use 1/4 teaspoon per gallon every time you water.
Temperature and humidity: 60-80 degrees with 40-60 percent humidity. You can use a humidifier or group plants over a water-filled tray of stones. Like most of us, violets hate cold drafts and temperature extremes.
Pot size: Small -- one-third the diameter of the leaf span. Repot once or twice a year, when plant is out of bloom. Violets are weird; they bloom best when potbound.
Grooming: Routinely remove spent blossoms and damaged leaves. Once in a while, gently bathe leaves in lukewarm water. Blot and air dry.
Some violets need a resting period after a heavy bloom; most, if they're happy, will bloom constantly. If your plants get thrips or mealy bugs, you can fight or withdraw with honor. Most violets are reasonably priced -- even collectors' beauties are only a few dollars -- and easily propagated by rooting leaves.
After all this, you might find yourself developing a fondness for your charges that borders on the parental. This is normal for violetlovers, who often call their plants "my babies."
"You have to provide everything it needs," explains Rob Robinson, a breeder from Naples, N.Y. "If you don't provide water, it dies.
If you don't provide light, it won't flower. You must provide every single thing. Violets are completely dependent on you."
If that turns you on, you'll find everything you need to know on the African Violet Association of America's Web site (http://www.avsa.
org/). Just click on "Magazine" and scroll down to "Articles."
-- Virginia A. Smith
Southern New Jersey African Violet Club