Purple spring • Great Spaces

Posted on 14 Apr 2010 at 11:19am
By Howard Lewis Russell

One woman keeps her penthouse far from blue with her African violets and green thumb


Mina Cunningham gave her African violets a spot all their own facing the evening sun from her Uptown highrise penthouse. (Photos by Rich Lopez)

A wise horticulturist once said, "There are flowers that grow in nature, and then there are flowers that grow in grocery stores." African violets, as with fiery Christmas poinsettias and snowy Easter lilies, are hard to imagine existing in a world void of fluorescent lighting, polystyrene pots and organically-balanced soil medium sold in 28-liter plastic bags.

Mina Cunningham, a local Dallas devotee of these beautiful, bluish flowers, is testament to why they’ve achieved such a speedy, and ubiquitous, global popularity

far removed from their natural, East-African jungle habitat. When asked her secret for growing perfectly happy, and healthy, velvety-leafed African violets in the merciless southwestern exposure of floor-to-ceiling penthouse windows in Texas, Cunningham chuckles, "Just plain old ultraviolet window film and utter neglect, my dear."

This ain’t your grandmother’s window sill.

Cunningham waves an arm flourishingly across her luxuriant window display. "I made most all these from a single, original violet. You just need one to start with. To make more, pinch off a leaf, let it sit in a glass of water about, oh, a month, stick it in a small pot of dirt with a saucer that has a big rim—the rim’s got to come up big and high, now, because you’re not supposed to water the leaves from the top, or get them wet—you pour the water into the saucer underneath the pot and the dirt absorbs it: That’s my secret."

African violet plant food helps, of course, she winks — "just seven drops per quart of water every time you water." The brand Cunningham swears by is Shultz African Violet Plus, Liquid Plant Food with Micronutrients 8-14-9.

"The spring season ought to bring out the farmer in all of us, but I just don’t have any farmer in me, and there’s nothing more disheartening in the springtime than planting flowers in a pot and watching them die, no matter what you try," Cunningham chirps.

The history of the wild African violet, however, is unique among humanity’s windowsill plants in that, even though it would logically seem a flower that has been "housebroken" now surely for millennia, it was, in fact, first discovered in 1892 — growing on a shaded rock ledge high up in the lush, cool jungles of the Usambara Mountains in northeast Tanzania. (What a wonder it took so long?) Unique of most eponymous-named plants, the African violet really does hail from Africa.

African violets did not even make it to the United States until 1926, and all highly varied modern varieties since are the result of hybridization. The main (if not sole) reason for their subsequent popularity as the ideal houseplant is that it likes exactly the same temperature people do. Oh, and that it’s near impossible to kill doesn’t hurt, either.

"Well," Cunningham, exults, "you can’t kill an African violet, not even me; and best of all, their beautiful purple flowers bloom off and on the whole year long. They stay dormant a while, then they show again. All you have to do is go to the grocery store, or, like I said, pinch off a leaf from a friend’s and save yourself the money, shove it in dirt and stand back. The purple springs eternal!"

This article appeared in Dallas Voice’s Great Spaces Magazine April 16, 2010.

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