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Happy Birthday Rose Behnke!

Today, February 28th, my grandmother, Rose Behnke, would have been 110 years old. While I know she’s been gone for many years, it seems like yesterday that the whole family was sitting around the dining room celebrating one of her birthdays with her favorite meal, Chinese takeout! Seriously–while she was a great cook, on her birthday we had takeout! For this special occasion, I thought I would share one of the plants that she loved, African violets.

‘Fantasy Girl’

Rose Behnke started a life-long love of African Violets back when my mother was a young girl in the 1940’s. She started cross-pollinating plants, kept records and developed popular varieties such as ‘Behnke Boy’, ‘My Maryland’, ‘All Aglow’, ‘Washington Star’, ‘Sonja’ and ‘Fantasy’. ‘Fantasy’ was one of the first speckled varieties, a pale single lavender flower with dark speckles on the petals. And it’s still around! I received an email a few years ago with this photo from Drew Norris, a member of the Gesneriad Society in Colorado. He wanted to know if I could verify that it was one of Rose Behnke’s violets.  A quick email to my mother, Sonja Behnke Festerling, confirmed what I was pretty sure of; yes this is ‘Fantasy Girl’.

Rose was so proud of her violets that she would hand-pick an assortment and send them to the White House for each new first lady.  She prized the many letters of thanks she received from first ladies and the White House from the Truman years through the Reagan administration.

By the time I came around, violets were a big part of Behnke’s history.  Where the houseplant greenhouse is now located, we had “The Violet House” with benches and benches of beautiful African violets that we grew from cuttings. As a little girl one of the first jobs I had was cleaning them–picking each one up, and pinching off any dead blooms and leaves. Sometimes good leaves broke and fell on the soil floor. Weeks later, little violets would be growing under the benches. In the front of this greenhouse was a DISPLAY ONLY area with a selection of large, beautiful violets in clay pots that people still talk about to this day.

By the way, my grandmother also named a violet after me, ‘Stephy’, a light pink flower that was unfortunately a poor performer and discontinued. But how special I felt having that violet.  It wasn’t until I was married that I got another plant named after me–a daylily–but that’s a story for another time.

by Stephanie Fleming, Behnke’s Vice President

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Today is also my birthday,like your grandmother I was born in Europe,my first name is violette …I love flowers like your grandparents.
    We met your grandparents in their garden in Burtonsville in 1971….
    Many years have gone by,I am now 85 years old,I do have a beautiful garden in West Laurel,,every year I have a garden party…Life can be beautiful in a garden filled with friends and flowers.
    Violette kogut

  2. I bet your garden is beautiful. And what a beautiful name you have as did my grandmother. I bet your garden parties are something that your friends look forward to. My grandparents use to love hosting parties in their own garden in Burtonsville

  3. Hey Stephie- So delighted to read these lovely stories of a Aunt Rose & Uncle Albert. THANK YOU! I remember very well the few times that we visited there from SC. Also heard many stories from my mom (Christl) & Aunt Gino about life in Beltsville. Behnkes is a piece of paradise!
    I’m starting to think about my spring planting, though there is still snow on the ground here in Michigan.
    Please give my greetings to Sonja and the rest of the family!
    Your Cousin, Patricia (Broadwell) Stephenson.

  4. I grew up at that nursery my grandfather would take me so we could buy another azalea or iris his two loves, he knew Rose I remember being introduced to her she never forgot my name as I grew up. I went back as an adult she was not there the day I was. I fondly remember this awesome place. I live 3 hours away in Shenandoah valley wish I could bring my grandchildren there to experience the first place I fell in love with flowers. Blessings. Goldilocks rose of 1967 my grandfather named for me.

    1. Two words! Road Trip! Just kidding, I know 3 hours is a long way to travel. Thank you so much for taking the time to drop off your memory of my grandmother. She loved meeting the children of friends and customers and always prided herself on remembering each and everyone.
      take care

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