In the Garden:
New England
January, 2008
Regional Report

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Grouping different colors of African violets together increases the "wow" factor. (Photo by Maggie Oster)

Appreciating African Violets

New and exotic and even somewhat finicky plants are always more alluring than the tried and true. Orchids, clivias, bougainvilleas, and epiphyllums, to name a few, all are celebrated and coveted, and we feel exultant if our epiphyllum ever opens a huge, spectacular flower. So it's no surprise that compared to other more dramatic houseplants, African violets get no respect. Some consider them boring and old-fashioned, and disparage them for being plants that Grandmother used to grow (as if this is a negative).

But while I fiddle with the light and fertilizer and water to coax my orchids into bloom, my African violets just sit happily blooming away. While I fight mealybugs on the orchids and scale on the jasmine, my violets are bothered by no pests at all. They are a snap to propagate from leaf cuttings, they tolerate a wide range of temperatures and humidity, and they don't need to hog the sunniest space in the house. They give so much and ask for so little.

To give these loyal plants their due, I'm designating January as African Violet Appreciation Month. If you don't have any, visit a nearby nursery and you're bound to find a flower color that tempts you. Variations of Saintpaulia ionantha are the most common, but Saintpaulia optimara 'Tradition' breaks the mold with vibrant pink leaves splotched with green. Miniatures are especially fun and easy to tuck in anywhere.

Watering
If violets are particular about anything, it's water on the leaves. Those fuzzy surfaces need to be kept dry. I don't find top watering to be a problem if I use a watering can with a narrow spout. But you can avoid the risk of water droplets by watering from the bottom. Set the pots in a small container of water until the soil soaks up enough water to become moist, not wet. You can find special self-watering pots made for violets that make it easier. Plastic or ceramic is best; clay tends to collect salts that rot the leaves.

Add dilute liquid fertilizer when you water to provide the nutrients that the typical soilless potting mixture is lacking.

Light
The leaves of my violets are turning yellowish, which is an indication they're getting too much sunlight in their new location. African violets need good light but not full sun. Native to Tanzania, these plants naturally grow in the shade of trees. Grow lights promote the best flowering. Leave the lights on for 14 to 16 hours each day, and keep the bulbs 8 to 10 inches above the plants, a little closer for miniatures. In the absence of grow lights you can raise the light level around your plants by placing the pots on a mirror, which will reflect light back onto the leaves.

I'm especially fond of violets with variegated leaves, and they need more light because they have less chlorophyll so they are less efficient at turning light energy into food energy.

Temperature and Humidity
I've grown African violets in most every room of the house. Typical home temperatures of 68 to 75 degrees are fine. In the wild they grow in high relative humidity, and if the leaves become limp, dry air might be the cause. Mine are now in my bathroom where they can take advantage of air moistened by the shower.

Leaf Cuttings
Raising the humidity is especially important when you're propagating leaf cuttings. Snip a healthy leaf close to the main stem, dip the end of the leaf stem (petiole) in rooting hormone powder, poke a hole in a pot of moistened soilless potting mix with a pencil, and slip the leaf petiole into the hole. Gently firm the potting mix around it. Cover the pot with a plastic bag to create a rooting chamber, and in a month or so roots will grow from the bottom of the stem and new leaves will form at the base of the leaf. Voila, new plants to give to friends.

Rejuvenating a Mature Plant
African violets benefit from being repotted once a year, but most of the time you'll need to only add fresh soil and not increase the size of the pot. Plants bloom better if they're somewhat rootbound. When the lower leaves turn yellow, snip them off to keep the foliage looking healthy and promote new growth. When the bare stem of your violet below the leaves has grown long enough to look awkward sticking out of the soil, it needs some attention. If the section of stem above the soil is shorter than 1-1/2 inches, just gently scrape around the stem to remove the scaly portion where old leaves were attached. Then set the plant deeper in fresh soil so the lowest leaves are just above the soil. Trim the bottom of the rootball if necessary.

If the stem is longer than 1-1/2 inches, slice off the top 2 inches of the stem with leaves attached and re-root that portion in fresh soilless potting mix. Discard the lower rootball. A plastic bag over the pot will help the plant retain moisture during the rooting process. That's the most drastic measure you'll ever need to take with your African violet, and you can always start over, instead, by taking leaf cuttings.

I now have the third generation of offspring from my original plant. I wish they were progeny of the plants that my grandmother grew, but at least I inherited her love of them.


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