violet women

field notes by missy j. kennedy

Three years ago, on Easter, I bought an African violet for ninety-nine cents at a CVS. I guess this is what I do now, because it’s been three years and I have three of them.

I didn’t know anything about African violets. At the time I had only cactus and aloe, hardy varieties I knew well and had kept in the windows of various bedrooms since I was a kid, plus a rubber plant I’d picked up the year before—nothing flowering. I snapped a picture of my new violet at home and sent it to my mother. Some distant windowsill clicked into focus in her memory—she wrote back to me, with the heart-eyes emoji, to tell me that she recognized the variety. That my grandmother, her mother, had kept them, too.

On nearly every online forum discussing the care of African violets—of which there are many—you will encounter at least a handful of such wispy memory-women tending to violets somewhere in the periphery. THE OLDER WOMAN WHO KEPT AFRICAN VIOLETS is usually a relative—a grandmother or a mother or an aunt—but she is always a woman and she is always older.

“Kevin, my Mom also had African violets in many colors when we were kids,” one descendant violet-carer, Cilla, chimes in. (And who is Kevin? I scrolled and scrolled but lost interest so alas will never know!) “And my Grandmother and my Great Auntie Alice. And every other blue-haired lady I knew as a kid!”

Sometimes this blue-haired violet lady is mystical, capable of cultivating specimens with leaf spans that could swallow up a large pizza. In this case, the commenter is usually the recipient of such a monstrous pizza-violet, either a cutting or a whole fledgling to care for, and the reluctant new violet-haver is sending out smoke signals to the rest of the group.

Writes one, Marilyn: “HELP!!!!!!”

But sometimes the matrilineal violet recipient is smugly in possession of the violet magic themselves, more commonly referred to as THE KNACK. So writes Lou: “My grandmother, mom, and I all have the knack for growing some beauties. Yet my sister and mother-in-law have no luck at all.”

I am getting the sense there is a hierarchy of language here. That to be in possession of a green thumb is merely charming—but to be in possession of THE KNACK seems either to indicate a mark of good breeding (Woe to the mortal, feminine failings of Lou’s poor sister and mother-in-law!) or a supernatural gift. Take note of the shift to a definite article, the vague and vaguely exclusionary connotation of this un-evocative noun! One with a green thumb may tend gardens, but one with THE KNACK may cultivate specimens.

I know what you’re going to ask me: Do I possess THE KNACK? Well, I’m not sure. My violets are doing rather well, but there is room for improvement. They flower every few weeks, though not continuously. I prune the dried blooms, water them about once a week (maybe less) from a kettle that’s been set out to warm, and rotate the pots a pinch when I do. I’m experimenting with how I feed them—milk, eggshells, coffee grounds—and trying out fluorescent lighting. I’ll probably move onto propagation from there, and what then?

I guess my hair will turn blue.

“Kevin,” confesses Margo in the forums. “I have become my grandmother!”