Out of Africa and Trader Joe’s

Total tab for monthly shopping at TJ’s: 78.95
Of that, a pot of African violets:2.49
Opportunity to atone publicly for  years of botanical snobbery:Priceless

I grew up during the great African Violet (botanically saintpaulia) craze of the late fifties and sixties. Except for the stalwart rubber plant I don’t think I saw another species of houseplant for the first fifteen years of my life. Add to that the fact that my mother a was first generation Canadian whose parents hailed from England, I lived through a perfect storm of saintpaulia.

Nana had long ago lost her Lancashire accent and achieved the plummy strains of Dame Margaret Rutherford. But her friends, my Honorary Aunties, had names like Elsie and Gert and made any room sound like the Snug at the Rover’s Return on “Coronation Street.” Their impenetrable Lancs accents, their sardines on saltines for tea, their incredible age (about sixty, in retrospect) terrified me. So did their sparkling, sadly spartan flats — they were poor, those wonderful women. When Nana took me calling I knew two things were true: they’d pull out a box of Peak Frean’s Digestives (which I loved) and we’d spend half an hour admiring their African Violets — which I loathed.

“Ee, luv, aren’t they smashing?”( That Merseyside accent didn’t become chic until the Beatles made it so. ) They weren’t smashing to me. All that fussing about a plants with nasty hairy leaves and flowers that didn’t even smell? That endless prattling about propagation and cultivation, light requirements , dusting and polishing of leaves? To my shame, I think I connected African Violets with the antimacassars, doilies,  the stink of canned sardines and genteel poverty.

Fifteen years ago someone gave me an African Violet and gee, the snobby scales fell off my eyes. It was pretty! I discovered that the eastern light in the back bedroom, it’s saucer on a doily (I collect doilies now — in fact I’ve made some!) suited it as well as the skies of Tanzania. A little water, some deadheading –what a satisfying posy, always in bloom, asking little and delighting much.

After a few years it died, and I sashayed to florists all over the county to replace it. Quelle horrible surprise! I discovered that I couldn’t afford one: these modest plants were available set out in cutesy ceramic containers, stuck into “plant gardens” with leafy companions that were bad company, sprouting from Wishing Wells, and costing at least 25 bucks. I appreciate kitsch more than the next person, but the price was too high.

So I’m over the moon about my cheap and cheerful acquisition at Trader Joe’s. And I’m apologizing to Auntie Bertha and Auntie Maude and Auntie Gert: you knew more about beauty than I did, pitiful snob that I was.



Filed under Five bucks or fewer, Growing things, History, Home, Ten bucks or fewer

4 responses to “Out of Africa and Trader Joe’s

  1. I SO love this glimpse of your gangly girlhood, of the fish teas and the hairy plants—so say we all.

    And African Violets—My own dear Aunt Lu (she of the paint-by-number canvases of raw red barns and gaudish Last Suppers) needed some beautiful in her life, and by dang, those turpentine-rank little jars of paint and that big triple-shelf, each with its own glary fluorescent nourishing at least six of the huddly pots with their exotic blooms doddling on slender stems—those were it.

    I remember her house as a place with one bright spot—the back bedroom, lit day and night with a gray-bright glow, for benefit of those plants. They were her only pets, those furry green creatures.

    Her workday was from can til can’t, and no allowances for anything with a pulse, but she found her grace in the violets. The purples and the mauves and the watermelons—those were her BRIGHTS, and we all takes them where we finds them.

    May you have much enjoyment from yours.

    • absurdoldbird

      I grew up during the great African Violet (botanically saintpaulia) craze of the late fifties and sixties.

      Oh yes, yes! Me too!

      And I felt exactly the same way as you, about the damn things.. but mostly because I could never manage to grow them. They always decided that life with me was worse than pot-death, and gave up. So I gave up on them too (not in the same way, you understand).

      Glad you’ve found a cheap one. How nice!

      I love reading your posts. I keep thinking, by the way, that you’re English – your posts are very English in tone. I don’t know if you’d regard that as good or bad?

  2. Neither good nor bad — family history will out! But in fact, I was born in Canada and have lived in the States for thirty years.

  3. mic

    African violets are not only beauty, but something to coddle and care for when time or money is tight.
    They cost less than cats.

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