September 10, 2012

Hybridizing History ~~ 3/1964 GSN


Trail of Progress

George Wessale
March 1964 Gesneriad Saintpaulia News, pgs. 24-25

At the sight of each new cultivar we express surprise and admiration and cannot help but wonder what is coming next or where the path of this plant's fascinating development will lead us. In our ecstasy, we are apt to forget that this has been going on for quite a long time and that once upon a time there was an humble and uncertain beginning for this Cinderella.

To pick up the thread of history of our favorite plant, we must go back to the year 1892, when a young German nature lover and colonial official in the service of his country, found the first African violet plants. He did so while walking through the beautiful primeval forests of the Usambara Mountains and the shaded Coastal Plains near Tanga in Tanganyika, German East Africa. Plants were found in both localities. His name was Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire. He was the Imperial District Captain of Usambara, a province of East Tanganyika, Territory of East Africa. Knowing that his father, Hofsmarsehal Baron Ulrich von Saint Paul-Illaire, of Fisehbach in Silesia, Germany would be interested in his discovery, he sent him some of the plants or seeds. There seems to be some disagreement as to whether the plants were sent in a dry state as botanical specimens or whether an attempt was made to deliver them in living condition. The boat trip required several weeks and it seems doubtful that proper care could have been given them to survive the long trip as live plants.

Be that as it may, there undoubtedly were some seed pods sent along with the plants to the father. Specimens of these plants were sent to the Hofsmarschal's good friend Herman Wendland, a noted botanist of his day and at that time, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens of Herrenhausen (Hanover), Germany. Wendland grew the plants he received. A year later he identified and named the genus Saintpaulia, in honor of the Saint Paul family, and because of its violet-like flowers he gave it the species name lonantha. In 1393 they were exhibited at the Ghent Quinquennial Exhibition, held from April 16 to 23, 1893, where they created much interest. The firm of Ernst Benary, Erfurt, Germany was assigned the commercial rights for distribution of seeds.

It is not known just how much progress was made in the propagation and selective breeding of Saintpaulias during the next number of years, in either England or Germany. Plants were brought to America about 1894 by a New York florist George Stumpp who purchased then. in Germany. Two plants of this shipment were sold to a Philadelphia florist William K. Harris, who probably grew some and sold them to his customers.

There was quite a gap in the trail of events before we again pick it up about 1927, when Walter Armacost of Armacost and Royston, Inc. Los Angeles, California obtained seeds from both England and Germany. His first attempt to grow them produced about a thousand plants. He noticed considerable variation in the lot selected and saved about a hundred of the most likely ones for further propagation and breeding.

Several years later, he made his final selection of plants and in 1936 issued a price list offering them to growers across the country. Of course, among them was the old pioneer, Blue Boy. Others were Admiral, Amethyst, Sailor Boy. Commodore. Neptune, Norseman. Mermaid, Viking and No. 32. Popularity of the plants spread rapidly and they were soon grown in considerable numbers.

About this time Mrs. William K. duPont of Wilmington, Delaware purchased seeds from Suttons of London, England. Among the seedlings raised was one with outstanding heavy foliage. Through hybridizing and selection Mrs. dupont developed the duPont strain of Saintpaulias from this plant.

On May 5, 1942 plant patent No. 514 was granted to Frank Brockner, assignor to Holton & Hunkle Company, Milwaukee, Wis., for Pink Beauty a mutant of Blue Boy. Pink Beauty was the first clear true pink. The inevitable soon happened and Nature asserted itself in a greenhouse bench of a mid-west grower by producing the first break or mutant to the girl type foliage from Blue Boy. Thus Blue Girl was born. The Ulery Greenhouses, Springfield, Ohio was granted a plant patent No. 535 on July 28, 1942 on Blue Girl. Another mutation, resulting from the hybridizing efforts of Peter Ruggeri, Silver Terrace Nursery, produced a pure white African violet — White Lady. Mr. Ruggeri applied for the patent and assigned the rights to the Fred C. Gloeckner & Company, Inc., New York, N.Y. who were granted plant patent No. 597, August 3, 1943.

Events followed in rapid succession with the appearance of Red Head and the many. many intermediate shades of reds, orchids and blues. It was an exciting and enchanting time in the Saintpaulia world.

In 1948 we received another even greater surprise with the introduction of the first doubles — Duchess and Double Neptune. A number of various color shades on double flowers were soon available and the clamor for the first double pink was on. . . . Rumors were flying hard and fast but strangely enough, it was not until 1954 when not one but at least five double pinks were announced simultaneously.

There may be some significance in this, because a short time previously we were told, by a noted mid-west geneticist, how to proceed to obtain double pinks with the plants we already had on hand by applying the principles of Mendel's Laws of Inheritance. Many growers heeded his advice and got the desired results promptly

The writer knows of one instance, however, where this was not necessarily so. A beautiful double pink, as fine as any, appeared among a few seedlings of a local amateur grower, from seeds purchased of a commercial producer. Here the correct cross may have been made accidentally, or it may possibly have been another mutation.

After the flurry of double pinks subsided somewhat, it appeared, for a time, that we were entering a period of monotony and stagnation of interest because hundreds of new cultivars were being introduced with practically no variation of flower or leaf from older plants. The larger growers, no doubt sensed this and set out to correct the situation, at least to some extent, by striving toward more floriferous plants, larger blooms and variegated or multicolored foliage.

Results from such radical attempts as chemical treatment and radiation, so far as is generally known, have been disappointing but who can tell what the future will bring to a house plant with such universal popularity? And to think that it all probably started with a few little shriveled seed pods long ago!

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