I’ve been growing African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) since pretty much forever. My first one came from a leaf my great aunt gave me when I was a very young boy. I grew it on the window ledge of my parent’s house for years, wild and unkept, with a long, creeping swan’s neck, propped up with rocks to keep it from falling over, but it did keep on blooming. And that’s what people appreciate about African violets: they manage to bloom off and on throughout the entire year, even if you neglect them a bit.
I’ve learned more about African violets since then and have grown literally hundreds of them. I even used to participate in African violet shows and bring home ribbons. I’m no longer into that, but still like to have them around and now I know better how to keep them clean and symmetrical… and usually get mine to bloom pretty much all year long. Let me share what I know about them with you here.
Despite its popular name, the African violet is not a true violet (Viola, from the Violaceae family), but rather belongs to the Gesneriaceae, the plant family that includes the florist gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa) and the Cape primrose (Streptocarpus spp.). Its common name comes from the shape and color of the flowers of wild African violets: with their five petals, two smaller ones on top and three large ones below and their violet coloration, there really was a resemblance with a wild violet (Viola spp.).
Modern African violets bear little resemblance to wild violets, though. Thanks to 100 years plus of hybridization, their petals are generally larger and more symmetrical and their flowers are often double or semi-double, sometimes with attractive wavy margins. The color range has greatly expanded since its origins: all shades of violet and purple are possible, of course, plus pink, red, white, green, and – yes! – even yellow! Many varieties are bicolor or even tricolor. The plant’s form – originally a flat rosette composed of spoon-shaped leaves – has also seen a few changes over the years and you now see some very attractive trailing African violets with multiple creeping stems. Leaves can be flat or undulating, green or red underneath and variously variegated. As for size, expect to see violets almost 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter and others smaller than a teacup. There are currently more than 40,000 different varieties of African violets, so take your pick!
Tips on Growing Violets
I’d be the last person to say that the African violet is difficult to grow, but it is true that it can be a bit finicky, especially if you want to grow it to perfection. So here are some tips to help you achieve success with this popular plant.
The main secret of a happy AV that flowers profusely most of the year remains adequate lighting: forget the warning you may have heard that African violets can’t take direct sun. No, they don’t like hot sun for hours on end, but a bit of direct sun is highly appreciated, especially during the winter months. In fact, if you live north of the 40th parallel, don’t be afraid to give them full sun between November and early March, when days are short and the sun is particularly weak. The rest of the year, an East window is an ideal choice: it gets some direct sun early in the morning, when it is coolest, and bright light for the rest of the day. If your windows face South or West, where the sun can be brutally hot in summer, try moving the plant back from the window or drawing a sheer curtain between the plant and the sun during the heat of the afternoon.
Like many African violet growers, I grow my plants under fluorescent lights, moving them into regular light only when they are in full bloom and I want to put them on display in my living or dining room. By setting my plants with their top about 6 to 12 inches (15-30 cm) below a two-tube fluorescent lamp (one Cool White tube, one Warm White) and lighting the plant 14-16 hours a day, I can assure them summer-like conditions at all times and in return get more or less non stop bloom.
The potting mix of AVs must be kept relatively moist at all times. For this purpose, apply simply follow the golden rule of watering: water deeply, enough to moisten the entire root ball, then allow the soil to dry before watering again. Thus there is no specific watering frequency you need to learn. Simply touch the soil every 3 or 4 days. If it appears dry, water the plant; if it doesn’t, don’t. Could anything be more simple?
You may have heard that saintpaulias must be watered from below rather than from above. That isn’t actually true, but there is a reason for that recommendation. African violet leaves are easily stained when water is inadvertently spilled on them and such stains are hard to remove. So if you water from below, filling the plant’s saucer with tepid water and letting it drink its fill, the watering can is nowhere near the leaves and you’re much less likely to spill water on them. If you want to water from above, though, that is easy enough to arrange. Just lift up the leaves on one side of the plant with one hand and direct the spout of the watering can directly onto the soil with the other. That way you water the plant’s roots from above without wetting its leaves.
Temperature and Humidity
Two vital factors to African violet health often go sight unseen: temperature and humidity.
The African violet is a tropical plant and doesn’t like cool conditions. Keep temperatures above 60˚F (16˚C) throughout the year. And be careful: a spot too close to a cold window, even in a well-heated room, can be cold enough to harm the plant.
Likewise, you won’t see the damage dry air does to an African violet, as it has thick hairy leaves that are quite resistant to dry air. You can’t say as much for its flower buds and they often abort when the air is too dry. As a result, the plant seems to stop blooming and you might figure it is resting, while in actual fact, it’s trying to bloom, but its blooms are being killed by the dry air. For that reason, it can be wise to place your African violets on a humidity tray, especially during the winter months.
There are fertilizers designed specifically for African violets you can use if you prefer, but pretty much any fertilizer will give good results. Ideally, for good symmetry and bloom, consider adding soluble fertilizer each time you water, diluting it to one-eighth the recommended monthly dose. If your plant is in a situation where it lacks light in the winter (often the case with plants grown on a windowsill), it is best not to fertilize during that season.
If left to grow at will, your African violet lose its lower leaves over time, leaving a bare stem (neck) that eventually bends over… and there goes your plant’s symmetry! This is easy to prevent: just get into the habit of repotting your African violet annually. When you do so, slice off the bottom of the root ball to a height equal to that of the plant’s bare neck. Place the now shorter root ball in the bottom of a clean pot (you don’t necessarily need to increase the size of the pot) and add fresh potting mix to the top, covering the neck. New roots will soon grow from the covered stem to replace those cut. Presto! Your plant is symmetrical again!
By the way, although African violet potting mixes are often offered in garden centers, just about any houseplant potting mix will do.
There are several ways to multiply an African violet (seed, stem cuttings, suckers, tissue culture, etc.), but leaf cuttings are the best known.
Remove a healthy leaf with its petiole (stem), simply snapping it off near its base. Now re-cut the petiole with a sharp knife so the wound surface will be even. Although you may have been told that you have to cut the petiole at a 45˚ angle, that is actually of little importance. A 90˚ cut will give equally good results.
Insert the petiole into a pot of moist soil. It may be useful to cover the cutting with an inverted clear plastic cup or a clear plastic bag: this will help maintain high humidity during the rooting process.
After a month or so (cuttings root faster in spring and summer than in the fall or winter), small plants will appear at the base of the leaf. When they were about 2 inches (5 cm high), separate them and repot each one in its own small pot. This step is very important: if you let all the baby plants grow around the mother leaf, they’ll compete with each other as they grow, leading to a crowded pot and poor flowering.
For Further Information
I’ll stop here, yet there is so much more to say about growing African violets: using wick watering, removing suckers, multiplying chimera violets, controlling insect pests, etc. For further information, why not join an African violet club? Their experts will be able to answer all your questions. There are local African violet clubs all over the world and quite probably one in a city near you. Even if you’re not yet ready to join, you’ll certainly want to go and see their annual show!
There are also national and international African violet societies you’ll want to consider joining as well. Here are a few: