Despite what you might think after walking through his home, Jere Trigg does have more than one interest. If you can see past the African violets jockeying for light in his windows, a Stauter boat is visible in the backyard of his Spanish Fort home — evidence of a freshwater fishing habit. An illustration of Bear Bryant, propped against the wall on a table of violets, points to another passion — the Crimson Tide.
But for Trigg, African violets cast a long shadow. In fact, for the 74-year-old (whose first name is pronounced “Jerry”), other interests take a backseat to, or in one case are combined with, his love of the plant.
“I thought it’d be great if I could develop a violet that has the colors of the University of Alabama,” says the bespectacled and white-haired Trigg. So the hobbyist went to work. After selecting the “parents,” a white flower from one plant and a red flower from another, Trigg very carefully used a razor blade to cut open one flower’s yellow pollen sac.
“Each African violet flower is referred to as a ‘perfect flower,’ meaning it contains both the male and female components. So you’re taking the male component off one flower and you’re applying that pollen to the stigma of the other flower, which will become what’s known as the seed parent.”
If the cross-pollination takes, a swelling at the base of the flower will eventually create a seedpod containing hundreds of seeds.
“If you get a little bit too exuberant about cross-pollinating and plant too many seedpods, you can end up with several hundred seedlings before you realize what you’ve done,” Trigg says. “I bet you I had 500 seedlings trying to get this one perfect plant.” It took six months for the plants’ first flowers to bloom, but Trigg found that it was worth the wait.
“It just so happened that one of them had exactly the colors I was looking for,” he says.
Not only did the new plant have the right colors, but it was also a “chimera,” a rare type of violet that produces flowers with a pinwheel pattern — two colors with a distinct border.
“It’s a lot of luck,” Jere explains of the hybridization process. “But the more plants I have, the luckier I get.”
In order to register the new red and white variety, to be named “Jere’s Roll Tide,” with the African Violet Society of America, Trigg first needed to clear the name with the trademark registration office at the University of Alabama. For the modest cost of a crafter’s license, he received the University’s blessing to sell Jere’s Roll Tide, but curiosity got the better of one employee in the trademark office; he asked Trigg to mail one of the violets to Tuscaloosa.
“And I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, I can do better than that,’” Trigg remembers. “‘I’m going to bring you a plant.’ So I drove up there with two plants, and I gave one to him and I asked him to give the other one to Coach Saban’s wife. I don’t know if it ever made its way to her. I never heard back from him. But I felt like I did my part anyhow.”
Today, Trigg estimates he owns about 500 violets, spread across five rooms of his two-story home. Some sit in the light of a windowsill, but most are carefully arranged along shelves, under artificial lights. He used florescent lights for decades until he found that LED bulbs use up about one-third of the power.
Trigg moves from shelf to shelf, room to room, with the air of a college professor, explaining horticultural practices in a way that anyone could understand. He relishes any opportunity to guide a violet newbie. For those who buy plants from him or follow him on Facebook, Trigg has become a sort of African violet guru within the community — Yoda with a green thumb. Though he never worked in academia, he acknowledges that his professional background left him well suited for this hobby. Trigg received degrees in biology, environmental engineering and chemical engineering before working at Union Carbide, a chemical plant in Chickasaw, for 33 years.
“Having kind of a scientific mind is helpful in terms of understanding why things work the way they do. But there are plenty of very good growers that are not necessarily scientists who just understand what to do, even if they don’t know why it works.”
About 45 years ago, a coworker gave Trigg his first African violet. To avoid the embarrassment of killing it, Trigg bought a book about the plant at the former Ibsen Seed Store in Mobile. He was soon propagating new violets by rooting the leaves of his lone plant, and before long, he was bringing in new violets to experiment with hybridization. Since retiring 10 years ago, Trigg says his hobby has taken off in earnest.
Growing up in Midtown, just across the street from his alma mater Murphy High School, Trigg tinkered with plants in the backyard. “Both of my parents were interested in flowers and gardening,” he says, sitting on a stool at his kitchen counter. “I always enjoyed watching stuff grow.”
Trigg has two sons himself, though he admits with a laugh that neither of them give African violets much thought. Maybe they will someday. A lot of people discover African violets later in life, often because they are gifted a plant from a parent or grandparent. Theoretically, Trigg explains, an African violet can live forever, making it the perfect pass-along plant, whether that be between friends or between generations.
The plant itself was first documented several generations ago, in 1892, when Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire discovered one clinging to a cloudy mountain ledge in modern-day Tanzania. Since that initial discovery, the violet has a proven knack for inspiring small pockets of devoted growers; people who grow African violets love meeting other people who grow African violets. Trigg considers himself just another grower in that long tradition.
“The thing that appealed to me about African violets is that when you grow them in your house, you’re in total control of all the conditions,” Trigg says. “And as long as you know what they need, then you can provide it. There’s no reason not to be successful.”
Of course, total control also means total responsibility. Trigg spends about eight hours a week watering his collection of plants; part of the reason it takes so long is that, as he waters, he uses the opportunity to carefully inspect each violet, removing dead leaves and detaching spent blooms.
“So, basically, you take care of each plant about once a week,” he says.
When not tending to the violets he already has, Trigg’s making new ones. There are several ways to propagate an African violet, but Trigg demonstrates the most common method: leaf propagation. By taking a razor blade to the base of a leaf and cutting at a 45-degree angle, Trigg can then root the leaf in water or potting mix. The result could spawn as many as 10 violets identical to the parent plant. For this reason, he jokes, beginners can accidentally “end up with more plants than they know what to do with. You could end up with as many as I’ve got!”
But nothing compares to the fun of hybridization. Trigg has created and registered more than 20 original African violet varieties, with names like Jere’s Starburst, Jere’s Lavender Lady and Jere’s Keg Party (the result of a cross between Jere’s Roll Tide and a variety named Powder Keg). For Trigg, the excitement comes from the unknown.
“There’s a certain amount of understanding of genetics that helps you to predict what percentage of seedlings will be one color and another color. But sometimes they’ll fool you,” Trigg explains. “Hybrid seedlings are kind of like human beings. Every child of a human being is going to be different. They’re going to have some characteristics of the father and some characteristics of the mother. Some will favor one parent much more than others but because of the way recessive genes work, you may have a child that doesn’t look much like either parent.”
For five years now, Trigg has shared his extensive African violet knowledge as an instructor for the Eastern Shore Institute of Lifelong Learning (ESILL), a nonprofit adult-education organization in Fairhope.
“I enjoy the aspect of being able to promote it to others — to give them the opportunity to enjoy it like I have,” he explains.
Facebook has also allowed Trigg to do just that. In groups with names such as African Violet Addicts, African Violet Buddies and African Violet Nerds, Trigg shares photos of his newest varieties and offers advice to new growers. Facebook Marketplace has opened up another opportunity for Trigg: selling his violets. For $5 to $15, anyone can purchase a Trigg violet; for $5, you can also take home two leaves to try your hand at propagation.
“I don’t really make any money off of any of this because it’s a hobby for me, you know?” Trigg says. “It’s a fascinating and challenging hobby that has enabled me to spend my time doing something that is meaningful. During this pandemic, people were going stir-crazy, but I enjoyed working with my plants. It might not make sense to some people, but it makes sense to me, because as long as you’re doing something you enjoy, it doesn’t matter.”
If interested in purchasing some of Jere’s African violets, search for his name in Facebook Marketplace or email him at email@example.com. To check when Jere’s violet classes resume, visit esill.org.