Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sweet (African) Violet

My mother wasn’t particularly domestically-inclined so I learned many of the womanly arts from my grandmothers. As a result of their patient instruction, I can cook, bake, clean, launder, mend, and can do a credible job of most common forms of needlework. I can even keep a vegetable garden (and preserve its produce), and do a fair-to-middling job of keeping some nice houseplants. But, despite my moniker, I’ve never been able to grow African Violets.

Now this is kind of an embarrassing admission, considering that one of my grandmothers was actually named Violet and the other one collected Occupied Japan porcelain in the “Sweet Violets” motif…and grew African Violets by the hundred. It’s not that I don’t understand their basic needs…filtered light, “wet feet,” and no water on the leaves…it’s just that once their original hothouse blooms have faded, I am left with a shelf full of identical pots full of identical flat hairy leaves. They never, ever bloom again.

Oh, I’ve probably tried all of the tricks and remedies you can think of…changing the watering schedule…“African violet food” in liquid, sticks, and tablets…soil specifically formulated for African violets…changing the light exposure…nothing helped. Eventually, getting no reward (blooms) from the plants for all my ministrations, I would begin to neglect them and one day sadly find their dried and shrivelled corpses where once fat hairy green leaves had flourished.

After several fruitless forays into African violet cultivation, I pretty much gave up and bought fake ones for the pretty pots, but still, they beckoned me. In the supermarket thick emerald leaves crowned with a topknot of beautiful blooms called to me. A beautiful white…a frilled white with lavender edges…a robust traditional violet…”Buy me!” they called out “Only R14! ($2)” “Take me home!”

Seductive little buggers that they are, I am soon hopelessly plunking three new African Violet plants in the bathroom…actually, our toilet is in a separate room of its own, with a tall opaque window, and I put them in there. The shelf over the commode is just the right width for three of them, but within a few days some of the larger leaf stems are becoming soggy. Alarmed that they might actually die before even the hothouse blooms have finished, I move them to the window sill, careful to open it no more than an inch, lest the blazing Cape Town summer sun burn them to a cinder. Within days they have recovered (although I did lose those leaves) and their pretty little blooms liven up the tiny loo.

But all good things must come to an end, and eventually I found myself picking the shrivelled brown petals out of the leaves and resigning myself to three pretty plants on the window. They seemed to like the window, after all, with new leaves bursting out and the old ones growing thick and sturdy and crisp. When I would wash my hands I would check their saucers and refill them as necessary, taking comfort in the knowledge that even if they never blossom again, at least I am cultivating the healthiest crop of African violet leaves I’ve ever seen!

And then one morning, it happened. Looking up from the local gossip rag (we keep a rack of them in the loo), I thought I saw something suspiciously round nestled in the middle of one of the violets…not a new leaf, but something I hadn’t seen before. When I washed my hands I took a close look and, to my great amazement, saw buds! Buds! The plant was planning to bloom for me! But which one was it? After months of watering and moving them on the shelf according to who needed more light (based on leaf sturdiness and size), I had no idea which violet was about to burst forth into bloom!

Within a few days it became apparent that it was the white one and about the time it began blooming, the purple one started showing buds. And after a lag of a couple of weeks, the ruffled one began setting buds, ready to flower. I was amazed! Delighted! Enthralled! For the very first time in my life, my African violets were blooming for me!

Seems all I needed to do to grow African violets was to move to Africa…

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