Towards the end of the nineteenth century, East Africa was ruled by Germany through district officers, one of whom deserves the gratitude of houseplant enthusiasts today: this was Baron Walter von Saint Paul-llaire who had an interest in botany. His father, Baron Ulrich von Saint Paul-lllaire, was a patron of the botanic garden at Herrinhausen near Hanover where Herman Wendland was director, and so Baron Walter would send plant material home whenever he found anything that looked interesting.
Whilst on a tour of his territory in 1892 in the coastal area near Tanga, Baron Walter found a colony of low-growing, hairy- and fleshy-leaved plants with small single flowers of intense blue. He collected samples of the live plants and seed capsules. Later in this tour of the East Usambara Mountains, he collected material from another colony of these plants at around 3,000ft (900m). All the plant material was sent to his father in Germany, who grew plants from the seed and shared them with Wendland. The latter, a taxonomist, realized that these plants were of an unknown genus, and it was he who described it and named it: Saintpaulia in honor of the Saint Paul-lllaires, and the species name S. ionantha from the Greek for a violet-like flower.
Although we know today that Baron Walter collected two species on his tour in 1892, it is apparent that Wendland had only considered the plant material collected at Tanga. The second sample of plant material collected in the East Usambara Mountains lived in botanic gardens as S. kewensis, a variant of S. ionantha.
Over the years, more Saintpaulia species have been found by a number of collectors, some within two or three years of the first, and have been identified and described by B.L. Burtt and others. All the species have been found in a comparatively small region of East Africa and nowhere else in the world. At present the following are known: twenty identified and described species, one other recently discovered, six variants and two natural hybrids; each has its own tiny separate habitat area.
All species have single flowers with five lobes, of which the upper two are smaller than the lower three, combining into a very short corolla attached to a calyx that has five sharp-pointed sepals. The flower color is blue, ranging from a very pale shade that is nearly white, to deep purple. The leaves are variously hairy, the hairs ranging from few to many and from short to long, in shades of green from light to dark. Some species are rosette-forming, with very short leaf internodes, whilst others have long internodes with trailing and branching growth. Also within the species the growth may be of large or tiny size.
Thus hybridists have been able to breed rosette types from species including S. ionantha, S. confusa, S. difficilis, S. grandifolia and S. orbicularis; miniature types from S. pusilla and S. shumensis, the former of which is now unfortunately extinct; and trailing types from S. grotei, S. magungensis, S. m. minima and S. pendula.