BUFFALO, NY - Ralph C. Robinson ’79, PhD, is an acknowledged late bloomer whose livelihood is as uncommon as the plants he grows, sells and exhibits.
A former economics professor, Robinson left academia to open The Violet Barn, a plant shop and glasshouse that specializes in African violets. But his are hardly the garden variety that sit on your windowsill. Robinson’s African violets are hybridized rare species, not previously grown in cultivation. They are award-winning collectibles that attract enthusiasts from around the world to his sprawling conservatory on the south tip of Canandaigua Lake in Naples, NY.
“It’s a modest life,” says Robinson, who transferred to Canisius junior year to pursue an accounting degree. “But it’s rare that one can live one’s dream.”
Though he never dreamed of owning a niche business. Breeding and hybridizing houseplants was a high school hobby that he started in 1975.
“I had light stands in my bedroom, plants all along the windowsills and belonged to the local African violet society.” He says with a laugh, “I was the only guy in the club. The rest of the members were little old ladies and housewives.”
It was not until years later that Robinson took a risk and turned his penchant for plants into a legitimate business venture.
Using his savings as seed money, the 40-year old economics professor gave up teaching to open The Violet Barn.
“I really liked being in the classroom with the students but had a hard time finding a full-time position where teaching – not research – was the emphasis,” explains Robinson who taught at the University at Buffalo and Daemen College. “I gave myself one year to make it work. I lived off savings and then credit but there was a demand for the plants I was producing and I could see on the horizon that things would eventually turn around.”
Today, Robinson tends to 30,000-plus hybridized plants at The Violet Barn, which he sells largely online.
“Pre-internet, we placed a lot of ads in plant publications and produced catalogs, which people would order from and send checks in the mail,” Robinson recalls. “Nowadays, everything is online and our customers come from all around the world.”
Though he grows and sells genetically rare relatives of the African violet, his specialty remains the increasingly extinct tropical plant. Robinson is most famous for his miniature hybrids, trailing violets and super-blooming violets, many of which have been featured in Martha Stewart Living, Better Homes & Gardens, the New York Times and The Washington Post.
Indeed, Robinson’s business has blossomed in the 20 years since he opened The Violet Barn. So, too, has love.
Shortly after opening the shop, Robinson met Olive Ma at an African violet convention. A native of Taiwan, she lived an uncannily parallel life to Robinson’s half a world away: She too gave up a secure job midway through her career to open a violet shop in a small urban nursery in Taichung. The couple married within two years. Ma immigrated to the United States and is now a partner in The Violet Barn.
“Prior to meeting we had both resigned ourselves to living alone the rest of our lives but doing what we love,” quips Robinson. “Now, we’re doing what we love with the person we love.”