I’ve grown African violets as houseplants for years. I love them because they like indirect light and don’t mind drying out between waterings. They bloom in lovely little pops of color and aren’t fussy about soil (lighter is better). So, it’s not too much of a surprise that as growers have diversified the plants via its flowers, I’ve acquired those new introductions.
As a plant geek, you have to have all of the cultivars, you don’t know why. And you don’t question it. It just is. The good news though is through my deepening adoration for this simple genus (Saintpaulia) of plants, I created a kind of African violet that growers hadn’t created yet. One that only lives in my mind. And for me, a writer, the ability to play with that imagined plant was a thrill.
Early Common Delights
I started with the deep purple African violet most commonly grown. It has dark velvety petals and simple, cupped flowers. Its deep beauty hypnotized me. I couldn’t stop staring at its lush depth. I can’t tell you what cultivar it was because African violets are rarely marked at nurseries. But you’ve probably seen it. Most are derived from Saintpaulia ionantha. At any rate, I was able to enjoy it while it required so little to set flowers that lasted for weeks.
As the years went on, I bought African violets whose flowers were a more magenta shade, or had rose-shaped flowers, or frilly petals, and on and on. They rarely died because their care was so low-maintenance (indirect light, weekly or biweekly water) but a few times the cat did get to its stalks and I had to toss a couple. But mostly, those fuzzy petioles didn’t taste good in the cat’s mouth. For the most part, the plants grew happily.
The Oldest African Violet
Later, that initial purple plant tripled in size. Because African violets don’t like their leaves getting wet with cold water, I often lifted up the plant’s green skirt of leaves and watered the soil. At one point, I noticed it was growing in two stalks that were beginning to look like branches. They curled slightly, kind of like a yucca or wild dracaena, but being herbaceous, weren’t true “branches.” They weren’t woody.
But what if those branches hardened off to the point where the plant grew higher and its stems held lignin, the hard stuff that makes a woody branch woody. And what if it didn’t need to naturally mutate like that but was crossed with another plant that gave it that contradictory form? What if that other plant had a scent that gave the African violet its scent? As far as I knew, no one had successfully hybridized an African violet so that it emitted a fragrance. But what if someone could?
A Plant at the End of the Mind
These “what if” questions occupied my mind for a weeks. It was a fun botanical puzzle to imagine. One that couldn’t exist in the real world. It just couldn’t because of the difference between woody and herbaceous branches (one containing lignin, the other, cellulose). But my imagination didn’t have any bounds. I pictured what the plant would look like. It would be lovely and awkward at the same time: a jade plant with African violet blooms at the branches’ ends.
I loved the idea, that it didn’t exist but could in a world that I made. I could create any situation I wanted. And I did. The world I made for my unique plant was in Paris: the most beautiful city in the world to house the rarest plant in my story’s world. And as I thought up who would take care of my imagined plant, I started spinning a plot, then I threw everything else I loved into the novel. And it became The Forgetting Flower.
Do I still grow African violets now that I’ve created the penultimate plant in my mind? Absolutely! I just saw this gorgeous beauty the other day (above) and had to have it. There was no reason behind it, there was no justification. I simply became entranced by its uniqueness. I’d never seen its kind before and wanted to incorporate that into my life. And that’s the thing about plants: their loveliness doesn’t have to fade and die quickly, it can expand and enlarge and delight your soul for years to come.