I started to post this last night and guess what? The power went out! 18,000 residents in my neck of the woods were without power last night from 8PM on and there’s still quite a few people that don’t have power. Fifty percent of the customers in my town lost power but we got it back at 4:15 this morning. Last night out came the candles and the iPhone—what did we do before all these electronic gadgets that let us connect? Without the iPhone, I would’ve been in the dark (no pun intended) about what was going on with the power outage. My phone battery was low, though, a few more hours and I would’ve really been in the dark!Guess, I’ll have to be more proactive about keeping it charged.
I was really excited about writing this post because the first flowering house plant that I can remember from my childhood is the African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha). My grandmother grew them in every window that faced east or had good morning light. To say she grew them is doing her a disservice for she carefully tended and coaxed them into amazing displays of bloom that I’ve never seen the likes of since.
African violets are members of the gesneriad family which includes gloxinias and streptocarpus. They are not related to any of the plants in the violet family which includes pansies and violas. The “violet” name was given to them because of the flower’s dark blue color and because they look a little like the wild wood violets that grow in the forests of Europe.
A lot of people don’t like growing African violets because they wrongly think they’re “finicky” plants, but they’re really no more finicky than any other flowering house plant and if you follow a few rules you shouldn’t have any problem growing them.
What are the BASIC rules?
- Don't let them dry out.
- Always water from the bottom with warm (never cold) water.
- Use a humidity tray or fill a drip pan with pebbles and water
- Daytime temps of 70 to 75, night time temps no cooler than 60 degrees
- Morning sun, east window or filtered sunlight (through a sheer curtain) or fluorescent lights.
- Feed monthly with a special African violet plant food only
- Use special potting soil formulated for African violets
Granted, they're not the type to plant you can forget about watering. It doesn’t take long for them to pack up and leave town, but there’s so many colors, shapes and varieties of AV’s that if you do want to put in a little effort caring for them you’ll be surrounded by almost continuous living bouquets.
Soil- African violets (AV’s) need a very rich potting mix that has a large amount of peat moss and other organic material. A lot of collectors mix their own potting soil and then they sterilize it in an oven to kill any pests or weed seeds but you can buy a bag formulated for AV’s anywhere that sells potting soil and that’s so much easier.
Repotting/Transplanting – African violets (AV’s) are the exception to the rule of going up only one pot size. They tend to like “loose shoes” but the soil has to be very fast draining too. The crown of the plant (the section of the plant where the leaves sprout) should always be planted just above the soil line.
My plants are potted in plastic pots which have their advantages (don’t dry out as quickly as clay) and disadvantages (sharp edges that bruise leaf stems). My grandmother used to wrap tin foil around the edge of the pot to prevent the bruising but that’s not the most attractive solution. Clay pots are better but dry out quicker so you have to keep checking the soil moisture. Glazed pots solve both problems the best. You can buy special AV pots which have are two-piece ceramic pots. The bottom section has a well, that you add water to and the top section that contains your AV has an unglazed bottom which wicks moisture as the plant needs it. (See picture on right)
Temperature – AV’s like house temps that are on the warm side—70 to 75 degrees during the day and about 60 to 65 at night, any lower and they’ll hunker down and go on strike, refusing to bloom.
Light – In order for them to bloom AV’s do need a lot of light but it doesn’t have to be from a window source. They will happily grow and bloom under artificial light. Grow light fixtures are nice to have but can be expensive. Another alternative is to put your plant under a fluorescent light fixture. My plants sit on an east-facing windowsill during the day and at night I set them underneath several fluorescent under-counter fixtures. I put them on an overturned pot or two so that they are no more than 8 inches from the light source. The advantage of using a special grow light fixture is that you can raise and lower it to the proper height but this alternative works for me.
Tip: You can tell if your AV isn’t getting enough light—the leaf stems will be elongated and raised up or pointing in the direction of the light source. It’s a good idea to turn all plants every couple of days to keep growth even.
Trivia: The botanical name “Saintpaulia” honors Baron Walter von Saint Paul who brought the plants back to Europe in 1893.
Water—Now here’s the tricky thing with AV’s. Don’t be tempted to water them from the top—EVER. Water does not roll off an AV’s furry leaves like it does off a duck’s back! One drop of water, especially cold water, equals one spot. It’s best to water them from the bottom by soaking their pots in shallow pan of warm (not cold) water. Wait several hours and check the top of the pot with your finger, if it’s moist—put the AV back on it’s drip tray. If the soil isn’t wet, then add more warm water to your pan and check again in 30 minutes.
Humidity – AV’s like a lot of humidity. They’re natural habitat is the steamy jungle so since you can’t spray them with a mister, grouping several plants together on a drip tray filled with stones and water is the best way to provide the most humidity, short of turning your house into a sauna.
Tip: Because the AV leaves last so long before being replaced by new ones, the hairs on the AV’s collect dust and make the leaves look duller than they actually are.. You can clean them by using a small paintbrush to gently “dust them” Don’t use a spray bottle or any water though.
Cultivation – My grandmother didn’t drive, but she managed to share and swap her AV’s with friends who lived in different parts of the state. She did this by taping leaves from her favorite plants onto a sheet of note paper and sending them through the mail for the recipient to root.
African violets are fairly easy to propagate though it takes about six months to a year before you’ll get a plant that’s blooming size.
Cut several good leaves that are blemish free from your plant leaving about a one inch stem. Stick it into moist potting mix (not wet) burying about 1/2 inch of the leaf, lightly firm the soil around the leaf and put the the pot in a plastic bag, tie it closed and place it in a warm area where it gets indirect light. Check regularly but it usually takes about 3 to 4 weeks to see any new growth. Keep the plantlets in the same pot until there are 3 or 4 leaves but remove from the bag. At that time you can repot them into a larger pot.
Trivia: True violets, the namesake of African violets are the symbol of love and fidelity. Violets are also the February flower of the month. Since true violets only bloom once a year in spring, African violets make a great substitute for February birthdays or just to say thanks to a special friend.