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FLOWERING HOUSEPLANTS: AFRICAN VIOLETS

The second houseplant I owned was an African violet given to me by my grandmother (the first was a Dracaena marginata I purchased for my dorm room in college.)  This violet bloomed non-stop for years in my grandmother’s care, but I struggled with it, and felt terribly guilty when it died—it may have been pining for my grandmother, who had passed away the previous year.  I like to think I just did not have the right window, but more than likely I let it dry out too many times, and it then went down-hill fast.  I kept the little green ceramic pot in which she had grown it, and periodically, I place a pretty new violet in this pot.

The African violet (Saintpaulia) was introduced in the United States when my grandmother was a young child.  As a great gardener and plant lover, I feel certain that she must have purchased a violet for her own home about the time that the early hybrids became available.  Since the time that these few (ten or so) hybrid African violets were introduced, hundreds of cultivars have been created by commercial growers, as well as by violet enthusiasts.  African violet societies can be found all over the United States and, indeed, throughout the world.

This pretty little flowering plant is native to Kenya and Tanzania in tropical East Africa.  It is named for Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, an amateur botanist, and governor of German East Africa in the late 19th century.  Two species of the soon-to-be-named Saintpaulia were sent home to Germany, where they became the parents of most of the cultivars available today. 

Found growing on rocks and rocky cliffs in wet, shady forests near the equator, the African violet is adapted to moist, well-drained potting medium, higher humidity and bright indirect light to dappled or morning sun.  In a home of office, they should be grown in an east-facing window or under fluorescent lights.  Too little light causes the leaf petioles and stems to stretch out and a lack of flowers, while too much light causes stunting and pale and brittle leaves.  When using fluorescent tubes, the plants should be about 12 inches below the lights, and the exposure should be 14 hours or more daily.

African violets prefer temperatures between 68-70⁰F at night, and 75-80⁰F during the day.   Provide a humidity range of 50-70%, being careful to maintain good air circulation to prevent fungal problems.  While many violet growers use sub-irrigation to water the plants (setting them in a dish of water or using a wick system or violet pot) you can also water from the top of the soil.  Avoid standing water in the center or “crown” of the violet.  Use water that is at room temperature or slightly warmer, and water early in the day, so that the leaves can dry before cooler night temperatures.

Use shallow pots rather than deep ones, as violets are adapted to the small pockets of soil in rocky areas.  Most violets will grow happily for years in a pot that is only 4” across and 4” deep.  Over-potting can cause root rot.  Maintaining a violet in a 4” pot requires periodic root pruning to eliminate the bare stem or “neck” that results from the natural loss of older lower leaves--taking a slice of root ball off of the bottom and then setting the plant back down into its pot and adding fresh medium to the top of the root ball.  Roots will grow from the stem into the new medium and the leaves will once again form a nice rosette on the surface of the pot.  The potting medium should be light, ideally a peaty mix with vermiculite and or perlite for added drainage.

There are many fertilizers labeled specifically for African violets, but you can use any water soluble product that is reasonably balanced, such as 10-10-10, or, if your violets are not flowering well, you can try something like 10-15-10.  Apply fertilizer regularly to keep violets blooming, but hold off for a few weeks on freshly potted violets.  Some growers add a very dilute fertilizer mixture every time they water.  Too much fertilizer can cause root and leaf burn from which the plant may not recover.

If you love African violets, you are in luck…they are easy to propagate.  Some people cannot bear to throw away a broken violet leaf and so continually start new plants.  A leaf with about an inch of leaf stem will root easily in a light potting mix or in a small glass of water.  Rooting in potting mix is generally better, as you get a healthy root system that does not have to make the change from water to media.  If you wish to create your own hybrid violets, this is done by collecting pollen from the flowers on one violet and transferring it to the stigma of a flower on another violet using a cotton swab or small artist’s brush.  When this results in a seed pod, you can start the “new” violet from seed sown on a damp bed of potting mix.  Provide high humidity, but also provide good air circulation for the seed bed.

African violets are so popular that there is lots of care information available on line.  But why not contact the local African Violet Society (richmondavs.wordpress.com) and learn from experienced violet enthusiasts why these plants are fun to grow and collect.
Posted: 9/24/2014 by Margot | with 0 comment(s)
Filed under: MargotGunn, TheGreatIndoors
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