African violets have a fascinating background in African history. They come from Tanzania, a country whose name was derived by combining Tanganyika and Zanzibar. (I love saying those names.) Tanzania is surrounded by countries we have often heard of — Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique — and borders the Indian Ocean in eastern Africa.
Tourist trade and safaris take people there today, but life was quite different in the late 1800s. Imperial Germany conquered the region, ended the slave trade and made it a colony. In 1892 a colonial official, Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illare, an amateur botanist, discovered a wonderful, “hairy” flowering plant. In his honor the violet’s botanical name is Saintpaulia. (Post World War I this area came under British rule.)
Saint Paul sent plants (or seeds, no one is quite clear on this) to his father in Germany, where they flourished in his care. Herman Wendland, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Herrenhausen, named the first flowering specimen S. Ionantha, which translates to “with violet-like flowers,” hence the emergence of their commonly known name, African violets.
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