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Violets: Who Is Who?
Written by:  Peter Robinson, AVS Horticultural Advisor (UK) © 2000 All Rights Reserved

             One of the frequently held misconceptions in violet circles is that the true violets are similar to or the same as African Violets. Unfortunately this is not the case although both have their own merits for the respective enthusiast, and there is no reason why both plants cannot be grown for their unique characteristics.

             African violets are fairly new to cultivation having first been discovered in East Africa in the early years of the 20th century by Adalbert Emil Walter Redliffe le Tonnevy Von St Paul-Illaire, who was district governor of Usumbara in what was then Tanganika. He dispatched samples of the new plant he had found to his father in Germany, who realizing the importance of the discovery immediately took them to Herman Wendland, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Herrenhausen. Mr. Wendland, after studying the plant, named it Saintpauli ionantha. The genus name commemorates the discoverer while the species name means, literally, violet-like, hence the name of this popular plant.             

True Violet Image
True Violet
'Becky' Cultivar
C.W. Groves And Son
Photo Copyright: Clive Groves
© 2000
All Rights Reserved
African Violet
African Violet
'Suncoast Paisley Print'
Photo Copyright: African Violet Society of America © 2000 All Rights Reserved

            In its native habitat, Saintpaulis grow between 50-300 feet, usually in rock crevices and fissures where there is decaying vegetable matter for them to root in. They enjoy a good amount of light but will not tolerate strong sunlight, preferring the shady position they are used to in their native environment

             African Violets fist became of interest to commercial growers in the 1930s.  A nursery company in Los Angeles became the first to grow plants on any scale.  However, of all the plants grown only a few were retained as being of interest and from the small number judged to be of merit they developed a large number of plants which were distributed to many other nurseries interested in the plant.

             It is the African Violet Society of America, founded in the middle of the 20th century that has done the most to promote interest in the African Violet, and it is to them that any enthusiast should turn for information and guidance. It is also worth noting that the African violet belongs to the family Gesneriaceae, a fairly large family of some 133 genera distributed throughout the tropical, sub-tropical and sometimes temperate regions of the world. It is a family of herbs, shrubs, with the occasional tree, and African Violets share this family with Gloxinias, Streptocarpus and Ramondas among others.

             True violets belong to the family Violaceae containing some 20 genera, and are members of the genus Viola. This genus is divided into a number of sections that split the 400-500 species within the genus into groups of plants with similar characteristics. The sections of interest to violet growers are:

(1) Nominium, containing the true violets which are derived from such species as Viola odorata (the Sweet Violet), and Viola suavis (the Russian Violet)
(2)  Melanium, grouping the pansies, and
(3) Chaemelanium, featuring plants referred to as Mock Pansies, which are, mostly, stemless forms of the violet.

             True violets have been around for centuries. It's said that the ancient Greeks cultivated them around 400-600 BC in specialist nurseries at Attica, outside the ancient city of Athens. The Romans also cultivated violets, and like the Greeks, used them for herbal remedies, to sweeten food, for religious and cultural festivals, and even made a wine from them called the 'Vinum Violatum'.

             Many cultures throughout history have grown and used violets for a number of uses. However, it was not until the 18th century that plant growers around the Paris area (France) concluded that the wild violets being collected from hedgerows and woodlands had potential commercial value. As a result, they took forms of the wild violet and deliberately planted them in cultivation. After careful selection of the resulting crosses a number of plants were developed and these were known as the 'Quatre saisons' violets. Along with the so-called 'Russian Violet' introduced in the latter part of the 19th century, these horticultural efforts did much to give us the violets we grow today.

             The violet was first and foremost developed as a commercial crop, that is, for cut flowers, perfumery and confectionery. Interest in the tiny flower grew to such an extent that nurseries started developing larger and better cultivars for the markets. Inevitably, some of these were grown in private gardens and as the interest grew, helped by the patronage of many royal households throughout Europe, it reached its zenith at the beginning of the First World War. After that time, the interest declined due to changing fashions. Fortunately and thanks to a small bunch of enthusiasts around the world, the violet has remained with us to the present day. We don't enjoy anything like the number of cultivars that were produced throughout the violet's history, however, of the hundred and some still remaining there is a steady trickle of new and re-discovered cultivars coming in to join the ranks.

             The main differences between African Violets and true violets are as follows:

             African violets are mainly grown as houseplants. They are shallow rooting plants that enjoy a good amount of light as long as it is in the shade, have fleshy downy leaves and produce throughout the summer five-petalled flowers, usually with a distinct eye.

             True violets are deep-rooting outdoor plants that thrive in partial shade to full sun; have large to small heart shaped leaves, sometimes smooth, sometimes with varying degrees of hairiness. The flowers are produced from September through to March (depending on the cultivar) and most, apart from the 'Parma Violets,' are frost tolerant.

            To please all enthusiasts I would suggest that both types of violets be grown: the true violets outdoors in the ground, in pots, frames or in the greenhouse and the African Violet, around the home. While it is possible to enjoy both plants, thereby having the best of both worlds, we should bear in mind that they are two different plants from completely different parts of the plant kingdom

             Pages with information on African Violets can be found at:  The African Violet Society of America at and How to Grow African Violets at: .  They have a "Photo Library" at: .  There is also a discussion of the differences in The AVS Talk About Violets Forum.  The pertinent discussion thread can be accessed via: This Link: .

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