ISSUE 97  |  Love Letter to the Houseplant

Yes We Can! Bringing Back Grandma’s Violets

November 12, 2013 2:00 PM

BY Amanda Gutterman

“Where do you keep your African violets?” It wasn’t a funny question, but the man behind the counter at the flower shop laughed. When he realized I was serious, he looked at me quizzically, as if my space ship had dropped me off in the wrong decade. I knew that African violets had lost popularity since the 1950s, when they seemed to be everywhere: on your grandmother’s Formica countertops, next to olive green kitchen appliances, and behind the boxy, black and white television with the silly antenna sticking out on top. Like Pop Tarts and Spam, for better or worse, African violets make us feel nostalgic. What I did not know is that they had reached near faux pas status among the houseplant-savvy.

Why, I began to wonder, did the African violet fall out of fashion? To me it seemed perfectly pretty. I admired its adorably petite stature, dark green leaves the size of tea saucers, and festive purple blossoms with their minute yellow centers. It was in need of a tough defender. I decided to figure out what went wrong and to vindicate this poor little plant. The African violet, I vowed, would laugh last.

Photographs by Erin Boyle.

Above: Photography shot with the Canon EOS 70D digital SLR camera, with Dual Pixel AF technology and built-in Wi-Fi.

To build my case (yes, I am studying to be a plant attorney), I hit the archives to gather evidence. The best and most indepth advice I could find on how to care for an African violet came from an article in The Free Lance-Star from June 29, 1950. It was on the Women’s Page–between an article titled “Good Grooming Important for Getting Job” and an advertisement for “cool lawn frocks trimmed with lace and fagoting as low as $3.95″–that I found Mrs. Gouldman.

I would’ve been lost without her. “Mrs. Gouldman, Who Grows 200 African Violets, Tells How to Do It.” The piece follows Mrs. Gouldman (to whom I now suspect I am related) who manages to keep seven varieties of violets blooming all year. Ever modest, she insists that there is “no special secret” to raising African violets, although they are reputedly difficult to grow. Mrs. Gouldman may not have been forthcoming about secrets, but after a few glasses of sherry–I’m improvising here–she was willing to spill 1,000 words on how to care for these finicky houseplants. Three cheers for Mrs. G.

Native to the Nguru mountains of Tanzania (no, this is not a J. Peterman catalog), the African violet thrives in warm, humid climates, which in theory would make it the perfect indoor plant. However, small changes in temperature disturb its growth and can interfere with its flower production.

Mrs. G. Power Tip No. 1: Try to place the African violet in a room where the temperature will be consistent, on a windowsill where it will receive ample sunlight without overheating and burning the leaves.

The African violet, alas, has more idiosyncrasies than light and water needs. Avoid, at all cost, spilling cold water on the foliage  as this will cause the blooms to discolor. If you are placing the plant on a kitchen counter, make sure to keep it away from gas stoves. Mysteriously, it seems that the African violet is allergic to gas, and the blooms will close up shop. (Part of me wonders if I could use this to my advantage, using a potted plant like a canary in a coal mine to detect a gas leak, but I don’t think I’d sacrifice my African violet even in the name of safety.)

Last but not least, African violets tend to be prudes. What better to remind us of the 1950s? When they are forced to grow indoors, they only can reproduce asexually. Many growers get frustrated when their violets refuse to bloom. But as when dealing with pandas in the National Zoo, take matters into one’s own hands. Send your African violet into shock by trimming some of its older foliage or, if it is in a plastic container, squeezing its roots tightly. The “instant reboot” will have your violet springing into action, with flowers following shortly thereafter.

African violets may be tricky to grow, but if we believe the wise words of Mrs. Gouldman, wherever she may be, they are far from impossible. They are unique-looking and bring back warm memories of family and home. Not every plant can say so much for itself. Is it possible that after a generation gap, people abandoned the African violet because they simply forgot how to grow them? To save the African violet, pass the torch to your children and grandchildren. I certainly will. Someday, if we succeed, African violets will be blooming on the inside of spaceships and perhaps even at wedding receptions in Brooklyn’s trendiest neighborhoods.

The defense rests its case. You’re the judge, jury, and witness. What’s your African violet story?