Meet Your Houseplant: The African Violet

Welcome to another addition of “get to know your houseplant!” This month, we explore the African violet on our kitchen table.

Members of the genus Streptocarpus, known as African violets or Saintpaulina, are a common houseplant. They grow as humble rosettes a few centimeters off the ground with hairy, oval leaves and occasional clusters of charming purple flowers. Due to their ubiquity in our homes and offices, we might take these little hairy plants for granted, but in the wild it’s a different story.

African violets weren’t always an unassuming potted plant on your secretary’s office desk. No. Saintpaulina are proud African plants native to the Nguru Mountain range in Tanzania. Steep and covered in dense rainforest, the Nguru mountains were virtually unexplored until 2004. The area is a hotspot for biodiversity, boasting thousands of species of plants and hundreds of species of birds, some of which can only be found there. Monkeys swing through the trees, chameleons creep across branches and snakes and frogs scuttle though forest litter. In the midst of all this wild, a far cry from our kitchen table, Saintpaulina grow on wet, rocky outcroppings beside creeks or waterfalls.

There are around 25 species of Saintpaulina, some of which only grow in very limited regions. Unfortunately, illegal logging and farming activities threaten these tropical microcosms. Currently, eight species of Saintpaulina are on the International Union for Conservation’s Red List of Threatened plants. One of these threatened species is S. ionantha, the species bred to make the houseplant on our kitchen table. That’s right. Our humble houseplant is a rare and precious thing in the wild. 

It just goes to show that we are surrounded by rare and beautiful things, if only we take the time to look.

Brian Rutter, PhD, is the cofounder of Thing in a Pot Productions and a postdoctoral researcher in plant biology at Indiana University. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our “Things About Things – Odd Facts About Plants” and video production tips in your inbox every month!

Works Cited:
Jaime, A., da Silva, T., Mafatlal, M., & Hassan, Y. (2017). In vitro propagation of African violet: A review. South African journal of botany.
Lindqvist, C., & Albert, V. A. (1999). Phylogeny and conservation of African violets (Saintpaulia: Gesneriaceae): new findings based on nuclear ribosomal 5S non-transcribed spacer sequences. Kew Bulletin, 363-377.
Menegon, M., Doggart, N., & Owen, N. (2008). The Nguru Mountains of Tanzania, an outstanding hotspot of herpetofaunal diversity. Acta Herpetologica3(2), 107-127.

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