It was almost 60 years ago that Betty Enticott saw her first African violet, commenting to her husband that she rather liked the neat-looking compact plant. Now, Betty has one of the largest collections of African violets in New Zealand.
Back in 1959 Betty was newly married and living at Massey, near Auckland. Her husband, Brian, listened to her praise of the plant and she duly received one as a Christmas gift. “From then on I was interested and picked up leaves from other people, putting them in water until they rooted – I ended up with about 30 plants. Then I got a book about them and started to work out the light they needed and a potting mix – I used garden soil mixed with coarse sand.”
Once a week she put them on her concrete deck and fed them. “In Massey at the time we were surrounded by farms so I’d pick up cow manure from paddocks and put it in a bucket of water to break down. I’d use a dilution of that to feed the plants then spray them with fresh water.”
When the couple set off for England Betty’s treasured African violets were moved to her mother’s home in Tauranga but unfortunately, none survived the change of conditions.
A year later, back in New Zealand with an adopted child and a baby, Brian and Betty settled in Mt Maunganui, later adding two more children to their family. “When I had the time I started again – and this time learned much more.”
She recalls reading articles in some of the American Sunset Books series and joined, as a correspondent member, an African violet club in Hamilton. She also got to know the late George Laurenson who had a large greenhouse of African violets at his Cambridge home. “I visited George often to buy plants and he would give me notes on their care.”
When the Hamilton club folded, Betty and George joined the Wanganui African Violet and Gesneriad Club, with Betty occasionally penning articles for the newsletter. At the time, there was also a club in Auckland but that later went into recess. The Wanganui club was the country’s only African violet club left when it closed about 3 years ago.
“It’s the same old story,” Betty says. “Members were ageing, numbers were dwindling and the young ones weren’t coming on.”
She has been a long-time member of the African Violet Society of America, particularly enjoying its magazine which includes information on other members of the Gesneriad family. “I found out I had four or five plants that belonged to the same family although they were plants I’d bought just because I liked them.”
One plant you won’t see in Betty’s home or garden is a cyclamen, a potential carrier of spider mites which also enjoy infesting African violets. Thrips can be another pest but Betty now uses a potting mix which contains neem oil and thinks it is helping.
With the sudden death of African violet hybridiser Daphne Snell of Pukekohe on Christmas Day 2016 and the dispersal of her collection, Betty believes she now has one of the largest collections in the country – about 250 plants comprising 150-plus named varieties.
One of Daphne’s plants – Kiwi Dazzler – has been especially popular in Japan and, Betty says, is “one of the best”.
When she and Brian built a home at Mount Maunganui 53 years ago, they included a conservatory for Betty’s African violets featuring fluorescent lights (to encourage flowering) and fans for good air movement (plus she also took over part of the laundry for her miniature plants and ‘plant hospital’). When they moved to Papamoa in 1999 the violets went into a new conservatory, ‘leaked’ into the laundry – and expanded again!
“African violets like the conditions you and I like,” she says. “Probably the biggest mistake is to overwater them – they have to have air round their roots but if you overwater them they can’t get that air and develop root rot. If you put plants in a pot that’s too big you increase the risk of overwatering as the roots are surrounded by much more wet potting mix.”
The holy grail for hybridisers is a yellow flower. Some small amounts of yellow have been introduced into white flowers over the past few years, but it has proved difficult to obtain clear, solid yellows.
“Once we get a solid yellow, we’ll get all sorts of other colours too,” Betty says, smiling at the thought of orange and apricot African violets.
A Potted History:
African violets, or Saintpaulia, belong to the Gesneriad family, which also includes Gloxinia, Streptocarpus and Achemines.
The botanical name honours the first European to successfully collect seed – Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, district commissioner of Tanga province (now in Tanzania). In 1892 he sent seed to his father in Germany. The next year the world’s first commercially produced plants were offered in Germany.
Saintpaulias are native to Tanzania and southeast Kenya and can be found growing on shaded cliffs and mountainsides, on moist rocks along rivers and on the shaded forest floor. Altitudes range from 100m to 2,000m. Species plants have tiny flowers in mainly blue, white and pale violet.
German company Optimara is the world’s largest grower of the plants – recently it has developed many new varieties which can be found in New Zealand’s garden centres, hardware stores, etc.
Plants can live for up to 40 years.
To keep African violets happy, mimic how they grow in nature – use shallow pots with a free-draining mix so air can get round the roots (add pumice, perlite and/or vermiculite to ordinary potting mix).
Keep moist, but not soggy, and feed regularly with weak fertiliser.
Good, indirect light (not bright sunlight) triggers flowering.
If you are feeling hot, an African violet will need ventilation. If you feel cold, an African violet will need warmth.
They enjoy good ventilation, as in the wild, but need to be sheltered. They will not thrive in stuffy, hot closed-up homes.
This article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.