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A Pinwheel By Any Other Name

Nancy Robitaille

Fenna - photo by Hiroko Endo

African violet hobbyists are nuts! I have no qualms about making that statement since I'm one myself. We fall head-over-heels in love with a common everyday plant grown by the hundreds in cool, damp basements by the light of glaring fluorescent tubes. We always want the latest and greatest from among the hundreds of new releases of hybrid African violets produced each year and are willing to play through the nose for them. If you don't believe me, check out the prices of some of the plants on Ebay!

It seems now that a plant that dates back only a few years, even if it performs beautifully, is passé. Only new plants and novelties catch our eye. Today there are plenty of "different" violets: the yellow-blooming plants, the spotted and streaked and of course the chimera.

What's In A Name?

Originally the term "chimera" was reserved for a strange beast found in Greek mythology that sported the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and tail of a dragon. Such a creature definitely had distinct types of genetic tissue of the same animal, just like a pinwheel violet, so was probably a true chimera. Even the ancients had serious doubts about whether such a creature ever existed, so the word "chimera" came to mean "an absurb creation of the imagination." Given the characteristics of the pinwheel flower, extending the word chimera to African violets therefore was only logical.

It hasn't been that long since the word "chimera" was introduced to African growers, via magazines and other written publications. Most people saw the word without having ever heard it spoken, so it is not surprising that mispronounciations abound.

According to the dictionary "Chimera" is pronounced "Ki-me-ra" or "Ka-mir-a" with a hard C, not "She-mer-a" or "Che-mer-a."

Candy Cane Flowers

Why all the interest in chimeras? To those of us who are not hybridizers, the chimera is just another pretty flower with a stripe down each lobe. Many growers simply use the terms "pinwheel" or "striped" flower.

To hybridizers and botanists, a chimera is a very special plant made up of two entirely different plants in one. The biological definition of a chimera is "a mixture of tissues of different genetic constitution in the same part of an organism." In other words, the basic flower color stems from one type of tissue, the central stripe from another. Think of a chimera plant as being a candy cane. The chimera flower is two totally different plants twisted and melted together to make one, yet each retains its distinctive color.

A cross section of a chimera leaf or stem would show it is made up of two different genetic cells; one for the main color of the bloom, the other for the color of the stripe of each bloom. As the flower lobe develops, most of it grows from a certain tissue layer, while the second color grows from a different layer. This produces a striped or pinwheel effect.

How Did Chimeras Come About?

Perhaps someday it will be possible to take a cell from a pink African violet, merge it with the cell of a blue flowered plant and get the two to grow as one plant, producing a chimera. At the present time it is not possible to create new chimeras in the laboratory. The first chimeras resulted from partial mutations. Some of the cells remained true to the mother plant, while other cells within the same stem became quite different. In true or periclinal chimeras, the mutated cells are on the outer side of the leaf tissue, while the inner core is exactly like the mother plant. The result of such partial mutations is a chimera.

Chimeras actually occur quite frequently in African violets and in many other plants. When part of a plant suddenly begins to produce variegated leaves or different colored flowers, a chimera may be involved, especially when this section continues to grow in the same way over time, sometimes spreading slightly to adjacent parts of the plant, sometimes losing ground. Unfortunately, in most cases, these chimeral tissues lie adjacent to the normal ones, not surrounding them, and it is unlikely that a stable, reproducible pattern will be produced from them.

Pinwheel violets, with two colors or shades distinctly marked on the same flower, have been know almost since the first African violet was grown in culture, one hundred years ago. They emerged as occasional mutations and were rarely given a second thought, since no one knew how to propagate them. For many years the African Violet Society of America would not allow chimera violets to be registered, maintaining that if they could not be reproduced true from leaf cuttings, they were not stable enough to be considered viable cultivars. Today it is now recognized that "reproducing true" can also be accomplished by means other than leaf cuttings, and chimera violets have risen to the pinnacle of popularity in the African violet world. The extra care needed in producing chimeras as opposed to regular violets results in a higher price tag. Even the least expensive baby plants in first bloom can cost $5 or more and new releases range in the $20-plus bracket.

Emerald City -- Photo by Nancy Robitaille

Breeding Chimeras

How does one go about creating chimeras? After all, there are probably over 100 different chimera African violets available on the market, some on standard violets, and others on miniatures, semi miniatures or trailers, some with double flowers, others with single blossoms. Where do they all come from?

Most are simply accidental mutations. They "just growed," as Topsy would have said. Serious African violet enthusiasts know the value of chimeras and watch for them. With literally millions of people growing African violets all over the world every year, the chances for mutations are good.

Hybridizers have also learned certain African violet strains have a tendency to sport (mutate) to chimeras. They cross these strains with cultivars offering other interesting characteristics…and keep their fingers crossed. Although their techniques lead to some success, developing new and better chimeras remains more a stroke of luck than a sure thing. At present chimeras are rare and more valued than other violets, so don't count on these prices coming down.

The Father of Chimeras

In the mid-1970s Hugh Eyerdom of Granger Gardens in Medina, Ohio, hybridized two chimera varieties that were extremely superior to any chimeras previously developed. These two varieties, "Valencia" and "Desert Dawn," were then introduced as new chimera varieties and sold for $50 each. The introduction of the chimeras was met with great interest, and the demand was heavy for them, even at $50.

The success of the chimera introduction led to many other hybridizers' development of more chimeras. Although the $50 price tag is no longer asked, new varieties still command a $10 to $20 when first introduced, while older chimeras generally sell for $5 to $10 each.

Chimeras have appeared occasionally either from seedlings or mutations for many years; however, they were never marketed due to propagation difficulties. As the cells carrying the chimera genes are only present in the epidermal tissue of the plant, they will not propagate true from leaf cuttings, since the new plant tissue usually grows from the internal tissue that is exposed when the leaf stem is cut. As a result, the plants had to be de-crowned, forcing them to sucker—to make new crowns. As the suckers grow from the joint of the leaf stem and the crown (not where the crown is cut) the suckers pick up the surface cells and the chimera genes.

Compared to leaf cuttings, crown removal and the appearance of suckers is very slow and not very prolific. As a result, it was too expensive to try to sell them as a regularly priced violet.

Propagating Chimeras

Chimera violets are so different from other African violets they require specialized care in propagation.

Cuttings and Tissue Culture Won't Work

Chimeras cannot be propagated by leaf cuttings because they are composed of two genetically different layers of tissue, whereas, in African violets, each plantlet produced from a leaf comes from a single cell. The flower color of the new plant grown from a chimera leaf will depend on whether it was produced from a cell from the outer section of the leaf or a cell from the inner core. The outcome is a plant whose flowers are either the color of the basic flower or the color of the stripe, never both.

Tissue culture, in which a paper-thin slice of a leaf is grown in a test tube resulting in many thousands of plantlets in a few months, has likewise failed as a means of reproducing chimeras, and for the same reasons. Each plant is grown from a single cell and doesn't carry the peppermint stripe combination typical of chimeras. Some laboratories do reproduce selected clones of pinwheel violets by tissue culture. It is believed that these pinwheel violets are not chimeras, even though the genetic make-up of each of their cells allows for two flower colors to be expressed at once.

If leaf cuttings do not work and tissue culture is a dud, how are chimera violets propagated? By using plant parts that DO maintain the "outer shell/inner core" pattern of the chimera.

Off With Their Heads

The solution to multiplying chimera violets is simple. Chop the top off the plant and root it. However, this wouldn't seem to give you much, since the result would be only one plant: the rooted top. Although the stub of the original plant may not look like much, it is alive and contains a full supply of roots to support its growth. It will quickly form a number of new stems, with most of these producing chimeras, which may be rooted in turn. Most African Violet growers rely on other means of propagating their favorite chimeras.

Suckering Up A Storm

Sucker: the word makes African Violet growers cringe. It refers to the plantlets that occassionally appear on the stem or among the leaves of violet plants. As the suckers grow, they push the original plant's leaves aside, disrupting symmetry and sapping all its energy, causing flowering to slow down or stop all together. Is it any wonder that African Violet lovers pluck them out as soon as they see them?

On the other hand, growers of chimeras look for suckers with anticipation. Most suckers contain the proper balance of plant tissues to produce the chimera violet. Suckers are the earliest method of propagation.

It is fairly simple to remove a chimera sucker. Simply insert a pencil behind the sucker, dig it into the tissue on the main stem of the mother plant, and flick it forward. With luck, the sucker will go flying. Dentist's picks and nut picks, not to mention dedicated "sucker-pluckers" (available from African Violet specialists) are also tools of choice.

Suckers can be rooted by setting them on damp vermiculite or some other growing medium. Use hairpins to hold down the two outer leaves so the sucker will root in the right position. Some growers place the sucker on a bed of moist paper towels, setting it in a terrarium or in a clear plastic container until the sucker forms roots.

On standard African Violets, growers generally remove suckers as soon as they are spotted, but in the case of chimera, suckers are a welcome addition -- the more frequently, the better!

As mentioned, the most drastic method is to cut off the head of the plant. Take a row of leaves with your "cutting" and leave one or two rows of leaves with the root ball. Reroot the center to make another plant and cover the stub with a plastic sack. (I tried this once with the popular chimera "Granger's Desert Dawn" and ended up with over twenty plantlets, all true to type, and the original stub still producing.)

The Japanese have found acupuncture works in sucker production. Take an average sewing needle (true acupuncture needles are optional), pierce the chimera in one place, and twist the needle between thumb and forefinger to open the hole a little. A sucker will appear within months.

Do It With Flowers

Believe it or not, you can actually root flower stalks as a means of producing chimeras. It's not easy, but it is possible.

The idea is quite simple. In violets, most flower stalks bear tiny pairs of leaves, and at the axil of each of these leaves lays a dormant bud. Normally, it simply withers away as the flowers fade, but if you root the stalk separately, the bud will generally struggle back to life. Since the plantlets it produces comes from a complete bud, and not just from a single cell, the chances are good they will maintain chimera characteristics.

Start by removing a flower stalk, which has two small leaves. Cut off the flower and flower buds leaving only about one-eighth inch (3 mm) of stem above the leaves. Then, cut the rest of the stem so it is about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in length. Place it carefully in moist vermiculite or another growing medium. Set a plastic bag over the container, putting it under lights. When plantlets appear (this may take a few months), remove the plastic sack. When they have grown to about the size of a five cent piece, separate the plantlets and grow as usual.

For better success in propagating chimeras by this method, leave the flower stalk (peduncle) on the mother plant for a longer time and cut off all flowers or buds as they appear. This allows the leaves on the flower stalk to grow to a larger size than usual and, in this way, will have more area to photosynthesize, giving them a head start when you do root them.

When you grow your own chimeras, never distribute them until they have bloomed at least once, discarding those that don't bloom true. Likewise, when you buy a chimera, make sure you choose one in flower that reveals the true pinwheel stripe.

See chimera propagation and Janet's Keiki grow method