The Adventure of a Book

Suggestions from readers, friends and family.

After the release of the book 'Saintpaulia, the history and origins of African violet', several friends and relatives in the African violets world asked me to tell them stories about the adventures of my research. Some found certain events so interesting that they suggested I write a book on 'The Adventure of the Saintpaulia book'. This was undoubtedly one of the most exciting adventures in my life and it lasted 14 years, but like any good project that respects itself, there were also painful times and unpleasant encounters. That is why I opted for an article rather than a book where I can allow myself to tell only a few good moments, sending the bad to oblivion.


1992 where it all began.

It was in 1992 that my passion for violets began. During the second year, I acquired my first African violet trailer 'Cherokee Trail', as well as my first species, S. pendula. Literally spellbound by the trailing varieties and species, I tried as best I could at the time, to find information on these two types of plants, but without success. Very few members in the violet amateur clubs grew these plants with a certain wild look. Finding no reference to help me cultivate these plants better, I decided to start writing a book on the subject. Writing being my first passion, I experienced no difficulty in getting to work.


At first, the book was to only address the subject of trailing African violets. A little later, when my local club notices my passion for the species, I was asked to give a lecture on the genus Saintpaulia. This I surprising to say the least, enough to trigger in me a new passion, a passion for Africa. During these early researches, I realized that the African violet trailer varieties were much closer to their ancestors than all other hybrids currently known. It is at this point that I decided to include in my book, a chapter entirely dedicated to these beautiful plants from this one country with lands of blood, which contains treasures unknown to this day, and unfortunately, which will not have time to be discovered at the speed where man destroys everything in his path.


The research begins.

The beginning of my first inquiries was difficult to say the least, since I did not own a computer. The few Internet searches that I could do at my work did not give much. The first few correspondances were made by regular mail. So you can imagine the spee at which I progressed. Real snail's pace. From a dozen letters sent everywhere in the world, I received only one response from an organization working to protect the environment in Africa. I received a copy of their publication and a very short letter expressing their interest for my book project. Seeing a door open fnally, I replied to their letter requesting more information on the composition of the lands of origin of the African violet, and the causes of deforestation in Africa and the scope on the environment. Unfortunately, I received no other communication from this organization. During my research, I quickly realized that I had touched a nerve and probably a taboo suject, even among organizations dedicated to the protection of this fragile environment. But this did not disturb any of my passion for writing and probing. Quite the contrary!


After 4 years of research finally successful.

During the second year of my research, I had acquired my first computer. It took me another 2 years before falling on the first serious contact in Kenya, Pr. D.U. Bellstedt who, later, put me in touch with Dr. B. Bytebier. After 4 years of fruitless searching, the adventure finally began in earnest. The answers to my many questions, documents and other ocntacts provided by Dr. Bytebier finally gave me something to start my book project. From my side, I continued to seek information where I could on the lands of origin of the violet and the causes of deforestation, and the impact it has on the natural environment of our favorite little plant. Once again, I found documentation that pushed my work forward. I discovered with astonishment that the plant most sold in the world had been added in 1986 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, to the list of the 12 most endangered plant species of our planet. How could this robust plant listed on the highest level of sale charts find itself in such a precarious situation? More reasons to continue my research and give my book a new mandate. To raise awareness of the urgent need to cultivate the species to ensure their survival.


My first serious contact.

One of the first contacts that Dr. Bytebier gave me was also one of the most exciting. It was Mr. Füllert, the great-grand-son of Baron Walter von St Paul. Following the first contact with Mr. Füllert, I received a lovely letter from the hand of his daughter, Petra. Since her father speaks only German, Petra agreed to the transcript of the correspondence between her father and me. This first letter was accompanied by archives of the St Paul family. You can imagine my excitement when I opened the large envelope from Germany: photos of Baron and several other archives. However, there was a "catch", the family archives were in German. It awa then that I found someone to help me with the translation of the documents. This was relatively easy despite the challenge. A friend of a friend of German origin did the translation with pleasure. In fact, the research needed for this book that lasted 14 years, as I mentioned earlier, was done with ease, as will also note Dr. Jeff Smith a few years later.


Dr. Smith was another important contact I found duding my research. His kindness, patience and the interest he brought to the project and the time he devoted to answer all my questions were highly valued. The day I asked him if he wanted to write the word on the back cover of the book, his answer surprised me greatly. Not that he accepted, but rather the way he accepted. He answered with great and even disconcerting humility. He told me how he was touched that I tought of him to write the word and he accepted it with joy. I still remember the feeling I had while reading his word. I even had to read it several times to make note of what he said. I said, 'Touched, he is touched... but what is he saying? It is I who is touched that he accepts my request. After all, it is he who is known and respected in the circle of the African violet while, I am still a complete unknown to many.' In addition, with all the time he had given me during the 4 last years of my research, I was extremely touched by his humility and kindness.


The adventure around the world via Internet.

My research led me to travel almost everywhere in the world via the Internet. China, Germany, Japan, Kenya, Norway, Peru, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania and United States. What exciting encounters! People who kindly and willingly agreed to provide me with the documentation I needed, and give me permission to use their incredible photos.


Contact so searched.

I remember one of these very particular meetings: Dre. Charlotte Lindqvist. It took me two years before I could reach her. At first, I asked Dr. Smith if he had an email address for her. I already knew he had met her in the past. He told me he had lost track of her a few years ago. Dre. Lindqivst is one of these people who contributed to the genetic study on the new classificaiton of the genus Saintpaulia. Every spare moment, I typed her name on the Internet trying to find a place to send an email. But each time, it was like she was a step ahead of me. Then one day, on a site of the University of Oslo, I was her picture and the date corresponded to the year 2007. I sent her a message and two days later, I finally received an answer. Just as enthusiastic as me with the book project, she offered to send me documentation and allowed me to use her famous photo of S. pusilla. It was one of the most enjoyable discusion I had.


Here are some other fascinating encounters I had the chance to do during those 14 years of research.

The exchange with the Dr Svein T. Baatvik, Directorate for Nature Management, Norway, was extremely courteous and pleasant. He provided specific documentation on the species S. goetzeana and also gave me permission to use some of this photos of the species in question. When I took the decision to include a chapter in the book devoted entirely to the species of this genus, I could not imagine writing a book on this subject without pictures representing these beautiful wild plants in their natural environment. It was important for me to be able to show the public the importance of acting to safeguard the environment at risk. Dr. Baatvik is one of those who understood the issue.


The inspiration that gave me wings.

Toward the beginning of 2007, steadier correspondences with Dr. Smith began, he sent me some of his personal notes on the species and their history. Among this material were details of the Mather and Uppsala Collections. I was amazed to read the story of this lady named Sylva Mather, Nairobi, Kenya. Plants from her collection were collected personnaly by Mrs. Mather, or were obtained from other collectors or fans in Africa. Some were also obtained by exchange with the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.


The first goal of Mrs. Mather was to maintain a collection of species as complete as possible. She was very aware of the conservation role that collections bring and of the precarious position of species of the genus Saintpaulia due to encroachment on their natural habitat.


In an article written by Mrs. Mather in AVM "In Jeopardy Saintpaulia Species" (May June, 1987, p. 30-31), we stated:


"(...) The purpose of this article is not only to talk about the present situation of wildlife, but strongly encourage you to keep them there and elsewhere, and do everything you can to encourage others to grow too. Soon there will be more of these treasures than those grown around the world in private collections, botanical gardens, and in the few commercial nurseries that are selling. As sad as this thought may be, at least they will be preserved for posterity so they do not become completely extinct and lost forever."


I immediately remember the arguments that I used with a contact at the beginning of my research. This person told me: "Everything is played on the field. That even with the best efforts, someone like me would never make a difference in saving these plants only by cultivating them on the windowsills on the other side of the planet." What I retorted with great conviction at the time, although I was a novice in the circle: "When men who have the power to preserve or destroy these forests have finally completed their desctruction, thos who have worked hard on the field to safeguard these valuable areas are likely to be happy to know that there are still some of these wild plants on the windowsills, somewhere on the planet." My words probably crude to the ears of this man, had the effect of making him change his way of seeing things, because two days later, he wrote again to tell me that my arguments had made him realize a thing. That no matter how small the effort, it remains crucial to the survival of these magnificent endangered plants.


The analogy between the comments of Mrs. Mather and mine ten years later provoked in my an incredible energy and enthusiasm to continue my research in order to complete this book. The analogy between her comments and mine was for me a strange coincidence. Throughout my research work, of course I faced some negative comments encouraging me to drop my project simply because of a refusal or some unanswered correspondence. It was a sign for me. A lady whose existence I knew nothing about until then had previously struggled with the same arguments for the preservation of this little plant. Unfortunately, in Dr. Smith's notes, it was mentioned that Mrs. Mather lost her life in a tragic car accident in 1992, the same year that I started to get interested in the genus Saintpaulia. That was the second strange coincidence in this story. Mrs. Mather became unwittingly a sort of mentor for my book and me.


The final touch.

I was about to send the book to the press when I suddenly realized that I really needed a picture of this lady in my book. I therefore delayed the printing and went back to my digs. I again contacted Dr. Smith to ask if he had, by chance, a photo of Mrs. Mather or if he knew someone who had one. He told me that the only person who might have this precious photo had to be none other that Mrs. Robertson, the person whose name was given to a species of this genus. Mrs. Robertson and Mrs. Mather were great friends. So I contacted the National Museum of Kenya to try to get hold of Mrs. Robertson, at least to find any address. I managed to get it. I sent a letter to Mrs. Robertson explaining my request. After several weeks without news, I reconnected with the National Museum of Kenya to try to get a phone number. Success! There are moments in life when one has no choice but to believe that what we call "providence" exists. The day I contacted Mrs. Robertson by phone, she told me that Mrs. Mather's daughters were visiting her and she had given them my letter. Mrs. Mather's daughters had promised to contact me as soon as they returned from their vacation to China. That was another highlight of 14 years of research, and the third strange coincidence. While I had no idea Mrs. Mather had children, what are the chances that I would come across two of them during a phone call with one of their friends in Kenya?


Just few days later, two daughters of Mrs. Mather, Annie and Caroline sent me two beautiful photos of their mother. One of these pictures was taken in their home at Nairobi, and the other at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. It was a moment full of emotions to finally put a face to the lady who gave me wings to finish my book. Adding one of these two pictures of Mrs. Mather was the last magic touch added to my book aftet all these years of work. I thank the Mather family for allowing me to finish my book this way. After all these strange coincidences, I could only dedicate my book to this great lady who was such an inspiration for me.


The translation of the book.

Once the book was published in French, I was still fortunate to be surrounded once more by exceptional people who had to bear with me on this long journey of translation the book into English. It took nearly two years of work to produce this new version. I would like to thank the people without whom this second portion of this great project would not have been possible. Monique Laviolette who had prodived me endless encouragement especially in the most painful moments and Barbara Thorpe who brought a touch of delicacy in this process.


Francine Pilon

Author of the book Saintpaulia, the history and origins of African violet.