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Mystery of the African Violet

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Photo by Andrew Evans (National Geographic Traveler)

African Violet Society of America
2375 North Street
Beaumont, Texas
Dear Madam or Sir,

I have come upon a strange flower and wish to inform you of its vague and general whereabouts.

I shall commence right away by stating quite clearly that I cannot—not without the greatest stretch of the imagination—consider myself an enthusiast, let alone the casual hobbyist, of flowering houseplants.

While I maintain an appearance of happy potted plants (orchids, succulents, cacti, ficus and the like), the fact is that I travel incessantly and thereby, usually guilty of seriously neglect towards said plants. Indeed, if given half a chance, I suspect that most of my plants would turn me in to child protective services with the simple charge of not caring enough.

On the contrary, though, I care deeply for plants and flowers—I care enough to write you today. Only, please understand, I address you merely as a traveler with a few small (yet critical!) observations from a rare and beautiful land.

Rare things are found in rare places, and as a wanderer who has dedicated himself to reaching the rarest places on Earth, I have happened upon a few rare things. For example, I once spotted a mutant all-black penguin near Antarctica, in Kyushu I came upon an exquisite 12th-century celadon bowl from the Song Dynasty, and this past spring, I met one of the rarest birds on Earth.

With all due respect to your international society and its unified cause of common houseplants, the African Violet you admire so much, is in fact, a very rare thing—it is one of the rarest flowers in the world. I know this now because I write to you from the Udzungwa Mountains of south central Tanzania, from whence these flowers originate.

You are already well-acquainted with the story of Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, a German district commissioner in Tanganyika, who stumbled upon these tiny purple beauties back in 1892 and like any good son would do, sent some of the seeds back to his father Ulrich who successfully planted and raised these vielchen—or “violets”—from Africa. Thus began the long chain of descent into the hall of fame for household plants and thus was born the name of the flower’s genus, Saintpaulia.

Madame or Sir, you know this, and you also know that through the ages there have been terrific arguments about the true number of species of the Saintpaulia flower. Am I correct to recognize that today’s botanical experts qualify the Saintpaulia into six major species? The smallest of these flowers is the Saintpaulia pusilla, which according to every reliable source on the internet, is considered to be totally extinct in the wild.

I have always wondered how and by whom such definitive claims are made. Who takes the great floral census and then bears the bad news that one more flower species has disappeared from Earth? Is there any such authority or are we merely guessing?

My dear colleagues-in-plants, I traveled to Tanzania’s Udzungwa National Park without any specific aim other than exploration—that vast activity which accommodates all interests, really. Established only in 1992, the park is a highly-protected area of the country, noted for its remarkably unbroken range of habitats, extending from lowland rainforest up to highland cloud forest. This combined range is a contributing factor to Udzungwa’s spectacular biodiversity—with more than 2,500 species of plant and some 400 species of bird.

Most remarkable are the number of endemic species you will find here—flowers, trees, birds and primates, all of which live only in Udzungwa and nowhere else on Earth. As a traveler in the jungle, I truly enjoyed every strange new creature and plant I encountered, filling my notebook with approximate descriptions and question marks, pretending to be the first human ever to encounter such wild splendors.

I benefited most from my extremely talented guide, Mr. H, who has been guiding travelers in this area for more than thirty years. He knew every tree and bird by its English, Latin, and Swahili name and displayed an impressive amount of not only biological knowledge, but also the local folklore and history of these forgotten mountains of deepest, darkest Africa.

On our travels together, Mr. H. let me on a tremendous excursion in which we hiked up a mountain for several hours. This mountain was sufficiently steep to cause me to lose my breath on a few occasions, the trail of red mud becoming quite treacherous at times. We passed waterfalls and thickets of long jungle vines while birds hooted at us and endemic monkeys clamored in the trees overhead. Though I am admittedly just a modern-day tourist, the true jungle atmosphere allowed myself to think, for a few minutes at least, that I was actually an intrepid traveler, venturing to little-known parts of the world.

By the mid-afternoon, in which the sun had become almost unbearable, we reached a plateau that to my best estimation, was around 1,500 m in altitude. The air was cooler and the gentle shade offered refuge from the harsher tropical climate below.

“Do you like flowers?” asked Mr. H., quite timidly.

“Yes, I do,” I replied, quite honestly. I do like flowers, and I had been inhaling their fair smell all the day long. My favorite encounter was with the white star flower of the wild mango tree, whose scent resembles wild jasmine.

“I want to show you this flower,” Mr. H. continued and then led me further uphill, over rocks, to a high pool of water, fed by a small waterfall. There he made me walk quite precariously out upon a rock ledge, and if I did not trust him with his knowledge, I would think that he was trying to trick me into tripping and falling into the natural pool below.

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Native African Violets grow in the high cloud forest of Udzungwa National Park, Tanzania. This biodiversity hotspot is renowned for its high number of endemic species. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Instead, he shone a torch upon the wet rock face in front of me, which suddenly burst into brilliant purple, for there, growing flat against the vertical grey granite, was a beautiful clump of African violets.

I laughed for joy when I saw them, because for the first time in a long time in Africa, I recognized something.

“African violets!” I shouted, and Mr. H smiled and nodded at me.

“Yes, you are right.” We were both quite pleased and after taking many photographs and looking at them very closely, I returned to more careful ground and took some notes.

“What is the latin name of this species?” I asked, and Mr. H wrote it down for me: Saintpaulia pusilla.

That’s right. The flower that I had seen in the rare Udzungwa Mountains of Africa (according to Mr. H) is the rare, and perhaps “extinct” species of African violet, Saintpaulia pusilla.

After further questions and much note-taking, my friend Mr. H. showed concern and asked if I was going to publish this information.

“Maybe,” I said, the inquired “Should I not?”

Mr. H explained how he feared if I revealed the precise location of this flower, that “Collectors will come and take it away. It is a very, very rare—very special flower.”

Mr. H seemed very sincere in his concern and I assured him that I would not divulge the location of said flower. I know how collectors and hobbyists have led to the destruction of many rare flora and fauna in the world. So, let it suffice to say that I encountered this rare flower in Tanzania’s amazing Udzungwa National Park, an Eden filled with rare and endemic species.

Now—I am not qualified to confirm whether or not what I saw was indeed proof that the smallest of wild African violet species, Saintpaulia pusilla, still exists in nature. Neither can I vouch for my guide’s qualification, though he seemed to be very educated and exact in his identification of the flower.

I am writing to you merely as a traveler who has come upon a rare thing in a rare place, hoping that with this photo, you might be able to shed some more light on the subject. As I continue to research this question online, I am instructed again and again that the flower is highly localized, with very specific climactic requirements, met only by the rare cloud-forest conditions and humidity of these mountains.

And so, I beg of you, from faraway in Africa, please help me know what it is that I saw. Or, if you know someone who might know, how I may get in touch with them. The mystery of this single clump of African violets is making me more restless than usual.

The other odd affect of my wild jungle encounter is that I am suddenly troubled with a longing to grow African violets in my home.

Yes, neglectful, horrible plant-owning me wants to return home and begin potting African violets left and right. I want a whole house full of them—not simply because they are some of the most beautiful flowers that grow indoors, but because I have now visited their home in Africa. From now on, whenever I pass a green plastic pot of African violets in some grocery store floral section, I will remember Udzungwa National Park, my all-day climb to the uppermost mountains, and my rare and touching introduction to the very special Saintpaulia pusilla.

I look forward to hearing from you soon. I should let you know that like your Society, I am Texan by birth, so perhaps someday we might meet in person, maybe over a pot of African violets?

Until then, I thank you for the work you do with this ua (Swahili for flower) and look forward to learning more.

Yours sincerely in violets,

Andrew

P.S. I have already liked your Facebook page, perhaps you will like mine?


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