It was the name that intrigued me first. Streptocarpus. It sounded like the bacterium, streptococcus, some species of which used to be death-dealing and even today can lay a body low. How could streps -- as these beautiful flowers are termed in the trade -- be referred to by the same clipped form that applies to the throat infection that nearly killed my brother more than half-a-century ago?
The name Streptocarpus derives from streptos, the Greek word for twisted, which describes the shape of the seed capsule. Carpus is taken from karpos, meaning fruit. Fruit, however, does not account for the plant's attraction. (The "coccus" in streptococcus, by the way, stems from kokkos, which is Greek for berry, kernel or seed.) The floral streps' popular name is Cape Primrose, from its origins in the Cape region of South Africa.
It was at Brookside Gardens a couple of months ago that I saw streptocarpus for the first time. The plants, bearing showy trumpet-shaped blossoms set off by large dark green leaves, enchanted me.
Virginie F. and George A. Elbert, in "The Miracle Houseplants," declare that few flowers match it in beauty and variety. (Their book about African violets and other plants in the Gesneriad family, to which streptocarpus belongs, first published in 1984, is out of print.) At the time streps breeding was taking place in Europe, where homes are kept at the cooler temperatures the early cultivars preferred, but the Elberts predicted that once American hybridizers discovered streps and developed varieties HTC tolerant of higher temperatures, these wonderful plants would "really take off."
The message, apparently, found an audience. In October, Thalia, a new entry in the Olympus line of streptocarpus, was named the only winner in FloraStar's pot plant competition. A large ruffled, white-flowered type, Thalia could almost be said to have a strep throat by dint of its carmine streaking. The rosette foliage is yellow-green.
According to the judges (professional growers drawn from throughout the U.S.), the champion is unique for its early bloom, larger, longer-lasting and more profuse blossoming, which, under the right conditions, may be continuous.
Thalia, which won't be on the market till spring, was created at Mikkelsen's, an American wholesale producer in Ashtabula, Ohio, by acclaimed breeder Lyndon Drewlow. The company also specializes in poinsettias, New Guinea impatiens, Christmas or Hiemalis begonias, kalan- choes, achimenes and miniature cyclamens.
Others in the Olympus series, all named for characters from Greek drama and mythology, are Electra (wine); Minerva (deep blue); Janus (medium blue); Orion (light blue); Muse (light pink); Ariadne (white with a carmine throat); Pegasus (white); Ulysses (purple); and Achilles (red).
Mikkelsen's breeding work on streptocarpus began in the late 1970s, said Dr. Drewlow in a chat on the phone, when Jim Mikkelson, the firm's now-retired founder, brought from Europe samples of Bavarian Bells, a variety commonly grown there.
The old types, Dr. Drewlow said, customarily develop one large, brittle leaf from which a few flowers spring. They also require temperatures in the 60s and go dormant after blooming. The Olympuses, by contrast, produce many short, pliable leaves, giving plants better balance. Each leaf bears 5 to 7 flower stalks.
The foliage, moreover, doesn't spot if splashed with cold water, nor is it likely to turn bronze under strong light, as is the case in the earlier varieties. When the environment suits them, the new introductions continue blooming without taking a rest period. They're also better able to endure heat.
About May 15, Dr. Drewlow plants streptocarpus in his yard in window boxes on the north side of his house and also mingles them as bedding plants with azaleas and rhododenrons, which, like streps, prefer shaded conditions. Plants do beautifully, he says, toughening up as fall approaches and blooming well into November.
To grow streptocarpus indoors, Dr. Drewlow says to give them "bright shade," his expression for good light but not direct sun. A west window is recommended, or a South one if the sun is not intense. (You can also raise plants in a fluorescent light-unit.) Nighttime temperatures of 65 degrees are ideal. Plants should be kept on the dry side, as overwatering can rot the crown and roots.
Mr. Drewlow has many new strep flower forms and colors on the drawing board. This year, he has 40,000 seedlings under study, only 200 of which he expects to keep for further evaluation. If five or six of these are found worthy of release, he says, "we'll be lucky."
Sources for streptocarpus in the Baltimore area include Geo. W. Radebaugh & Sons at 120 Burke Avenue in Towson and Myland Farm in Stevenson Village Center. Valley View Farms at 11035 York Road in Cockeysville is expecting a large shipment in early January.
A mail-order supplier for plants in the Olympus series is Fischer Greenhouses, Blackman Road and Poplar Avenue, Bargaintown, N.J. 08221; catalog 50 cents.
Brookside Gardens offers a free culture sheet on streptocarpus. For a copy, address your request to the library there at 1500 Glenallan Avenue, Wheaton, Md. 20902. Include a stamped, self-addressed envelope.