Originally appeared in VioletsFun Photo Journal, issue no. 2.
When African violets were first discovered in East Africa, there existed only one flower type and color–a single blue pansy blossom with five petals. Now, after years of hybridizing, violet blossoms appear in many different types. Knowing the terms that violet hybridizers and growers use, and learning the characteristics of different flower types can help us in selecting violets. We’ll look at each of these characteristics.
By number of flower petals. Flowers having only 5 petals are called “single”. “Double” refers to flowers with 10 or more petals (i.e. two or more full sets of five). We call a flower “semidouble” when there are from 6 to 9 petals. Often the number of petals will change because of many different reasons, either genetic or cultural. For example, blossoms will often have more petals in cooler weather, less in warmer weather. That is why we can find descriptions like “single to semidouble” or “semidouble to double”
By the shape of the flowers. The most common flower shape is the species-type or “pansy” type. These flowers are shaped like tiny pansy flowers, with two groups of petals–two smaller upper petals and three larger lower ones. It’s very easy to identify and “upside-down” photo of such a blossom, given the difference in petal sizes. “Star” type flowers have equal size petals. The number of points in the the star will depend upon whether it is single, semidouble, or double–a five or more pointed star. These blossom will look nearly identical whether seen “right-side” up or “upside” down. Other, less common, shapes are “bells” and “wasp”. “Bell” shaped flowers have petals which are fused together at their base, creating a bell-type appearance. These can be single or double, pansy or star, types. “Wasp” type flowers are rare because of the especially narrow petals, made rarer by the fact that they usually are single (and drop readily) and are small, which makes them commercially unpopular.
By the shape of petals. Species violets, and most of the very old varieties, all have smooth, flat petals. Modern varieties, besides being larger, also come in many different shapes–curly, wavy, and heavily fringed. These can give the blossoms a more feminine or exotic look.
By the color of the flowers. The most dominant color in violets, which appears in all of the species, is blue and purple. Since then, pinks and whites, reds and corals, then green and yellow, have appeared. Of course, color depends upon what the hybridizer and grower sees, when the plant is grown in their particular environment, not to mention small genetic differences from plant to plant. What is “wine” anyway? Is it more of a purple, red, or somewhere in between? Violet growers also define some colors in their own way. For example, hobbyists have accepted a somewhat purplish, fuchsia shade of red as “red”, not the “fire-engine” red that others might expect. Another example is the hobbyists’ use of the color “yellow”. “Yellow” means white or pink blossoms with yellow streaks or mottling, not “daffodil” or “canary” yellow.
By the combination of colors. Sometimes violets have more than one color or shades of a color on the petals. A “fantasy” blossom is where one predominant color is dotted or streaked with another. “Edged” blossoms are those circled with a different color or shade on the edges of the petals. “Multicolor” blossoms are those having two or more colors. a “two-toned” flower has different shades of a single color, without a distinct margin between the shades. This definition is falling out of use, since the difference in shades is often difficult to see or describe, especially when plants are grown under less than ideal conditions. “Pinwheel” blooms are perhaps the most unusual and striking color combination, where colors are shown in alternate stripes on the petals. These are commonly referred to as “chimeras”, since varieties of this type often cannot be successfully reproduced by leaf cuttings to get true-blooming plants.
Most hybridizers register their new varieties with the African Violet Society of America. The names and descriptions of these registered varieties can be found in the Master Variety List, published by AVSA and available both in print and on computer disk. Looking through the MVL, you might notice that descriptions of newer varieties tend to be more interesting and complex. Hybridizers are coming up with more colors and combinations of colors, and accurate descriptions are becoming harder to write. When grown by hobbyists, many of these varieties never precisely look as they were described. No two growers have exactly the same growing conditions, so it’s not surprising to see plants of the same variety, grown by different people, sometimes looking quite different.
Also, as flower colors and types become more complex and unusual, these varieties become more genetically unstable. Though we, as hobbyists, demand brighter and more unusual colors and combinations of colors, we also complain when our particular plant doesn’t appear as described by the seller or hybridizer. This is the price we have to pay for such beautiful new creations. Sometimes the best solution is just to keep some leaves rooting of these “unreliable” varieties, expecting the parent plant to change color due to stress, old age, or our own neglect. Even then, not all of the plantlets may bloom true to description. If we want certainty and simplicity, we can grow the species–sim