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SHRINKING VIOLETS I'm so happy you are here!

An African violet is perhaps the only full-blown paradox that can survive on a windowsill. On one hand, it is a celebrated show plant, with new cultivars eagerly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts. It has its own organization, the African Violet Society of America, and its own magazine, African Violet. A quick Internet search reveals that there are almost as many African violet sites as there are pages for sex and dieting. And yet, these plants are mass-produced by the hundreds of thousands, and are readily available for a miniscule price from mom and pop garden centers, enormous mega-merchandisers and a host of medium-size vendors.

At mid-winter African violets take a starring role at the front of displays in retail establishments; the rest of the time they languish under lights, ready to be plucked up by desperate souls who just need a little color in the kitchen window. Judging by the place of origin on the plant tags, African violet culture may well be responsible for a large share of Canada's export revenues. Thanks to the plant wizards who produce OptimaraŽ violets, these plants may also support a hefty portion of Germany's economy. If African violets could only power automobiles, the growers could take over the world.

As almost everyone knows, African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) have shallow roots, fuzzy leaves, and five-petaled flowers (except for double varieties), often with an "eye" in the middle. They seem to perform best as houseplants in a bright spot away from direct sunlight. When placed outside, they should be positioned in a shaded location to avoid burning the leaves.

As cultivated plants go, African violets are a fairly recent innovation. Discovered in East Africa about 100 years ago, they were first cultivated in Germany and Britain, and eventually exported to the United States. 'Blue Boy', the first American hybrid variety, was introduced in 1927.

Though the flowers of Saintpaulia resemble those of garden-variety violets, they are not related. African violets are part of the Gesneriaceae family, that also includes Gloxinia and Streptocarpus. True violets, along with pansies, are part of the Violaceae family. They can live outdoors in most places, while African violets are the ultimate insiders. Cultivate both, and you can have a little violet in your life all the time.

Those who are only familiar with the run of the mill purple, white or pink varieties available everywhere have seen only a fraction of the African violets available. There are miniature violets, trailing varieties, double-flowering cultivars and plants with variegated foliage. The flowers come in all shades of blue, purple and pink, and the "chimera" or pinwheel type sport dazzling combinations of two or more colors on each petal. There are also red African violets, yellows and a few with pale green blossoms.

Another violet paradox is plant culture. Violet aficionados can be slaves to the care of their fuzzy-leafed children, but less committed souls may be just as successful with a lot less effort. I once went to visit an extremely elderly friend in a nursing facility. On her north-facing windowsill she kept an African violet that was exuberantly healthy, enormously large and perpetually flowering. It was watered irregularly straight from the tap, and I have no idea whether it was ever fertilized. The only thing that the violet received regularly was admiration for its velvety dark purple flowers.

The lack of regular water may have been the key. More African violets die of crown rot, usually caused by too much moisture, than of anything else. Water the plants only when they are dry, and do not let the pots stand in water. Some experts recommend letting water sit overnight to let chlorine evaporate before watering. When you water, try not to allow droplets to touch the leaves, as spotting and rotting may occur.

Garden centers and other retailers carry African violet food, but you can also use any balanced fertilizer to nourish the plants. Follow the manufacturer's directions for African violets, and remember that too much fertilizer is usually worse than too little.

Violets that are happy eventually need repotting. You will know when to do it because the roots will completely fill the pot. To repot, remove the plant and install it in a larger container, preferably one on the short wide side. Use fresh potting mix. Make sure to cover the plant's "neck", as African violets should not be spindly.

I am guilty of having passed displays of African violets on many occasions without giving them serious consideration. Now I am intrigued by the florid prose of the online merchandisers and African violet fanciers, and I feel irresistibly drawn to the idea of acquiring a few plants. Yellow is my favorite color, so I have decided to order 'Heavenly Dawn', which reportedly has pinkish-gold petals and semi-double flowers. And since one violet will probably not be enough, I am also considering 'Suncoast Peppermint Kathy', which has double white blossoms with red edges. Violets are so relatively inexpensive that I am strongly tempted to order lots more. Unfortunately my windowsill space is somewhat limited, as are the available funds for such purposes.

If you feel a case of violet attraction coming on, drop by your local garden center or contact African Violets by Fredericks, Inc., Franklin, North Carolina, 28744; tel. (800) 771-0899; www.african-violets.com; or Alannah's Greenhouses, Box 2, Danville, Washington, 99121; tel. (250) 442-2552; www.alannahs.com.

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