The little African violet, one of America's favorite flowering houseplants, is in big trouble in its native habitat.

Forests in the narrow geographic range of the Eastern Arc Mountains and coastal forests of Kenya and Tanzania, where the violets grow naturally, are disappearing. The problem is largely impoverished local residents; they are cutting down trees and pushing back the forest at an alarming rate to clear the land for agricultural purposes.

As the trees crash to the ground, they take with them the canopy that shaded the groundhugging violets, which aren't violets at all but are called violets because they resemble true violets in flower color. The sudden exposure to unobstructed sunlight is more than the plants, which thrive in moist conditions in low and filtered light, can withstand. The result is that the Saintpaulias — the botanical name for African violets that honors Baron Walter von St Paul-Illaire, the German district commissioner who discovered them in 1892 — tends to literally burn up.

"Except for the species Saintpaulia ionantha as a whole, which is near threatened, all of the other Saintpaulia species and all of the subspecies of S. ionanatha are in one of the three threatened categories: vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered," said Roy Gereau, an assistant curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden and co-director of the Tanzania Botanical Research and Conservation Program. Gereau has participated in conservation assessments of all eight of the wild species and the 10 subspecies of Saintpaulia. He helped prepare data about the status of wild populations of Saintpaulia for the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. This list is considered the world's most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species.

"Almost all of the species of Saintpaulia and all the subspecies of Saintpaulia ionantha are in a perilous position," said Gereau.

Hybrid-focused

African violets under a magnifying lens Some sellers of African violet hybrids don't see much reason to worry about the declining population of the species. (Photo: Konstantin Malanchev/flickr)

What does this mean for the person who just wants to buy cultivated hybrids of African violets at their neighborhood grocery, box store or garden center? That depends on whom you ask.

If, for instance, you ask Ralph Robinson at The Violet Barn in Naples, New York, it doesn't mean much. Robinson and his wife, Olive, are among the leading breeders of African violets for the consumer market in the United States.

"The modern hybrids are so distantly related to the species that, at this point, there's not a whole lot to be gained by going back and hybridizing again with species," said Robinson, who has been growing and exhibiting African violets since 1975 and has been prominently featured in major newspapers such as The New York Times and in national magazines such as Martha Stewart Living and Better Homes & Gardens. "The whole point of the last 60 or 70 years of breeding has been to remove the undesirable traits [of the species] and get bigger flowers, double flowers, more unusual colors and manageable foliage, the things that you see in the modern hybrids that you don't see in species."

He used dog breeding to emphasize his point. "It's like a dog breeder who has the perfect dog," he said. "They probably wouldn't go back to the species and breed with the same dog."

The value of the species

African violets growing in the wild The species of the African violet may have plenty of traits to still offer its hybrids. (Photo: University of Buffalo)

If, on the other hand, you ask Jeff Smith, principal of the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities on the campus at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, you'll get a very different answer. Smith is a trained botanist and research scientist who has studied the genetics that control the flower color of African violets. He uses a strong species influence to breed award-winning African violets, and he thinks the species still have a very important role to play. That's because, he contends, some species' traits haven’t been fully developed or appreciated.

One of those is cold tolerance. African violets, he pointed out, grow at different elevations, from sea level to more than 5,000 feet above it. "If you are breeding with the upper mountain species, it may well be possible to create plants that have the colors, forms and other traits that the current breeding lines have but are able to withstand colder temperatures," he said. This is important because many people are keeping their homes colder in the winter to reduce heating costs. He believes that could expand the market for commercial growers within what he calls the grocery store market and also bring commercial growers substantial savings on heating costs in their greenhouses.

He also cited other desirable traits species could bring to breeding lines that might also have commercial applications. "There are some differences in foliage, such as the shininess of the foliage that aren't well represented in the modern cultivars," Smith said. "These differences could possibly be picked up and and be found attractive by certain people if you had decent flowers. There are some species that have foliage that will change color depending on the light condition, and we've not captured that potential at all. There's a couple of plants that, as they're exposed to longer days, their foliage will actually become almost striped by the end of the day and then revert back to dark green overnight. That's an attractive trait in my mind, but we don't have it in the cultivars at all. There's some species that have leaves with very short hairs so the texture is very velvety to the touch — very different from what we have in the modern cultivars."

Commercial growers have one goal, creating plants that will appeal to the homebuyer, he said. "I'm more of a mind of a geneticist or a scientist. There's a lot of potential to doing things we haven't even tried. It may be that not all of the stuff would be worthwhile. But I wouldn't want to see the plants go extinct before we have a chance to find out."

Saintpaulia ionantha 'Pink Amiss' Hybrids like the 'Pink Amiss' Saintpaulia ionantha are the type of African violets that growers are interested in growing. (Photo: Kor!An/Wikimedia Commons)

There's another reason not to discount the value species can have on Saintpaulia breeding, Smith said. "There are people in the African violet world who are always on the lookout for what's different, what's unique, what's weird; the more so the better." Count him in that group, he said. Commercial breeders, however, most often concentrate their thinking about new hybrids toward what will create the perfect show plant — which, not coincidentally, is the same type of plant that appeals to the general consumer market. That's because the foliage of these plants and the color and presentation of the flowers represent what many think of as the ideal "look" of an African violet.

But there are people who don't care about that, Smith said. Those people are looking for a weird shape, different types of blooms, different growth forms and different foliage types. Those people, he readily acknowledged, are a niche market. But, he added, some people in that group would like to see the African Violet Society add a competitive show category for the more unusual plants. "If that effort gains some momentum, it could be that the genetic material from these wild species could become important feeding into that," he said.

There's something else about the species that concerns him. He believes it's possible that species not known to science are waiting to be discovered in remote areas of Kenya and Tanzania, if villagers don't destroy them first as they clear the forest to grow food and other crops.

Saving the African violets

Several groups are working hard to make sure that doesn't happen. These include the University of Buffalo, which is crowdfunding a project to sequence a Saintpaulia genome, likely beginning with Saintpaulia ionantha; the African Rainforest Conservancy in New York City; and the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Against the backdrop of the two schools of thought on the impact of disappearing Saintpaulia habitat, both Robinson and Smith said they are not aware of any group that is collecting seeds of Saintpaulia species for possible restoration projects in the future. "Everything is basically live plants, and we trade clones of them," Smith said. That's interesting, he added, because the original collections were probably by seed. "Growing from seed now is something that people just don’t do. For one thing, the seed viability is only several years." Besides, he said, African violets can be easily reproduced from a leaf cutting.

Don't know how to do that? Well, here you go.

How to grow African violets

African violets growing in a botanical garden Leaf cutting is an easy way to grow African violets in your own garden. (Photo: mr_coffee/Shutterstock)

To start a plant from a leaf cutting, choose a healthy leaf, remove the leaf and stem from the plant and place the stem in a glass of water. After roots have formed, simply pot the plant in a small pot (2 1/2 inches). The best time to do this is in spring. The process will work with most African violets and produce exact genetic replicas of the "parent plant." The process does not work, however, with the Chimaera type of violets. Be sure to put a label in the pot that gives the name of the plant. If your plant were to ever be passed on to a collector, it would be of little value to them without a name.

Here is a basic guideline to growing African violets courtesy of The Violet Barn.

  • Light. Try to provide bright, but not direct, sunlight. If growing under artificial lights, place a two-tube florescent fixture about 12-18 inches above plants for 12-13 hours each day.
  • Watering. Use room-temperature water. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch.
  • Feeding. A balanced formula with each watering following label instructions is best (relatively equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). Avoid bloom boosters.
  • Atmosphere. African violets like the same conditions you do: moderate temperatures and humidity.
  • Soil. Use a peat-based, "soilless" mix consisting of at least 30-50 percent coarse vermiculite and/or perlite. Brand name "violet soils" are not necessarily good for African violets. General rule: the wetter you keep the soil, the more perlite it should contain to help avoid root rot. The goal is to match the structure of the soil where the plants grow in the wild, which is very loose and fast-draining.
  • Grooming. Except for trailers, do not allow extra crowns (suckers) to develop. African violets should be grown single crowned. Most African violets look best with no more than five rows of leaves.
  • Potting. Repot all plants every 6-12 months. Most standard African violets, grown as a houseplant, will require a 4-5 inch pot at maturity. For minis and semi-minis, use a pot no larger than 2 1/2 inches in diameter.

Old wives' tales

Robinson said there are some old wives’ tales about growing African violets that aren't true. Here are some that have gained currency and his responses to them.

  • Have to water from the bottom. "I always tell people Mother Nature always waters from the top. Rain always falls from the sky."
  • Can't get water on the leaves. "It's not the water that hurts the plants; it's the temperature of the water. Water plants with room-temperature water."
  • Have to use a blossom-boosting fertilizer. (See feeding, above.)
  • Have to use self-water pots. (See watering, above.)

"More people kill African violets because they are going by things they have been told they have to do," said Robinson. "In other words, if you use an African violet pot, and African violet soil and African violet fertilizer, you are going to be calling us [to] ask us what went wrong with your plant."