Flowers in the Dead of Winter: Growing African Violets

“I like to think that the purpose of the African violet plant is to bolster my ego.  I am very capable of growing lovely flowering and fruiting plants in a variety of outdoor settings, flower beds, raised beds and containers, for example.  I was, however, completely incapable of successfully nurturing houseplants until I discovered the African violet.”  

  • Sarah Preiss-Farzanegan. (See source list below)
african violets

One of Rita’s African Violet plants

By Rita Lynn

If you’re one of many people who believe African violets are very difficult to raise and would respond to this quote with, “She’s got to be kidding!” read on.  African violets are readily available at very reasonable prices, they come in a wide range of colors, and in many blossom and foliage types.  By passing them up, believing that they are finicky little things that are more likely to die than thrive in your care, you are missing out on being able to enjoy their delicate beauty.  You can raise African violets with much less trouble than you might think.

Most African violets are hybrids of the species, Saintpaulia ionantha.  The “ionantha” part of their name means “violet-like,” in that they are not true violets but a species of their own.  They were introduced in 1893 after being found in the Tanga region of what is now Tanzania, growing in varying amounts of shade on mossy rocks and in moist rock crevices.  This is an environment at sea level near the equator, where day length is about the same year round, temperatures hover around 65 to 85 degrees during the year, and rainfall varies throughout the year but is relatively abundant.  Knowing about the native habitat provides the clues we need to have African violets thrive in our homes here in the Midwest.  For their care, we need to address light, soil and fertilization, temperature, water and moisture, and choice of pots.  We’ll also need to be aware of what problems our plants might encounter.

 

LIGHT

Lighting is one of the most critical factors.  Leaves with elongated, stretched stems are an indication that light is insufficient.  You can perhaps raise these plants in an east window where the light is indirect, or direct for only short periods during the day.  Given our short winter days, however, use of fluorescent lighting may be necessary.  Regular fluorescent tubes will work, and the plants will even survive in a room well-lit with fluorescent fixtures.  If using plant lights, African violets will do best with the lighting tubes about 12 inches above the tops of the plants and turned on for 12 to 16 hours a day.  More light than the 16 hours is not better – they require darkness for about 8 hours a day to trigger flower production.

african violet stretching for light

An example of an African Violet plant with a light deficiency

WATER AND MOISTURE

You can surmise from the description of their natural habitat that they like lots of both water and humidity.  On the other hand, their natural habitat allowed for quick drainage of the water, so they do not like to be left standing in water.  Overwatering is, in fact, the most common reason that African violets die in our care, and under-watering is preferable to the opposite.  Watering can be done safely from the top, the bottom, or by wicking, as long as the plant crown (the center of the plant from which the leaves grow) remains dry.  If you water from the bottom, experts recommend monthly flushing from the top to remove mineral deposits.  Water should be at room temperature to avoid shocking the roots.  Humidity in our homes, especially in winter, is often lower than African violets need to thrive.  You can use a humidifier in the area, or you can set your plants on a bed of pebbles that are kept moist.  Be sure, though, that the plants themselves are not sitting in this moisture.

Speaking of watering, you can, contrary to popular belief, get water on the leaves.  Do take care, though, because spots of water on leaves exposed to direct sunlight will cause burning, and water left on the crown can lead to rotting.  Nevertheless, cleaning dirt off the hairy leaves is recommended.  If done with water, the water should be at room temperature, and the crown should be kept dry.  A safer method of cleaning leaves is to use a soft brush such as a makeup or artist’s brush, reserved for only this purpose.

 

TEMPERATURE

Our homes, with temperatures regulated to what is comfortable for us, closely matches African violets’ preferred 65 to 85 degrees.  Sustained temperatures below 60 or above 80 degrees would be damaging.  The plants also need to be protected from drafts from doors and heat vents that would tend to dry out the leaves or subject the plants to sudden temperature changes.

 

SOIL AND FERTILIZATION

For shipping purposes, African violets are often sold in soil that is too heavy.  Likewise, bagged soil mixes –  even mixes designated for African violets, according to some experts –  are also too heavy to allow the kind of drainage African violets prefer.  Regular potting soil can be mixed with equal parts of vermiculite or perlite.  Or the Missouri Botanical Garden article provides information for making your own mix.

To feed your African violets, just about any well-balanced, water-soluble plant fertilizer will be fine, used regularly and according to label directions.  Soil should be neutral or very slightly acidic (6.5 to 7.0) – not usually a problem, unless your water is outside the normal range.

 

THE RIGHT POT

African violets like to be slightly pot-bound, and their roots only grow about a third as wide as the leaves.  A plant with a 9 inch diameter, for example,  will be happiest in a 3-inch pot.  Since, in their natural habitat, these plants grow on surfaces and have shallow roots, pots shouldn’t be deeper than 4 inches.  Drainage holes are a must, and if you display your plant in a decorative pot, be sure that there’s no water left in the decorative pot after watering.

 

PESTS AND DISEASES

The most common pests seen on African violets are thrips and mealybugs.  If you blow on the flowers and see little dash-sized critters scurry, your plants might have thrips.  White mealy masses on plants suggest an infestation of mealybugs.  An occasional rinse with lukewarm water should help control either of these pests, and mealybugs can be removed with a swab dipped in alcohol.  If these gentle measures don’t work, plant experts recommend that you discard the infected plant to protect your other plants.

In addition to these pests, African violets are also prone to fungal diseases.  Adequate spacing of plants will assure good air circulation around plants, and this will help to control leaf fungi such as powdery mildew.  Similarly, loose soil and careful watering will help to prevent fungal infections of the plant crowns and roots.

 

A WORD ABOUT REPOTTING AND PROPOGATION

African violets need to be repotted on a regular basis to maintain vigorous growth and blooming.  They are easy to propagate from leaf cuttings.  The Missouri Botanical Garden article sited below and the African Violet Society of America website (avsa.org) are good sources of information about these topics, too lengthy to be addressed here.

 

 

This long, detailed discussion might seem to confirm that African violets are indeed too finicky to thrive at your house.  Note, however, that many of these needs are similar to those of other houseplants.   My personal approach to African violets, as it is to my other houseplants, is quite nonchalant.  Nevertheless, I currently have no fewer than twenty African violet plants, five of which are in full bloom.  That large number is the result of my having divided about six older, inadvertently over-fertilized plants that had sprouted numerous suckers.  I divided the plants on my patio when I was in a hurry and not very meticulous.  After all, I already had plenty of plants, and if some didn’t survive, I’d still have more than enough.  I pulled the old plants out of their pots and just tugged the babies off, keeping the ones that had at least a bit of root attached.   I set the divided plants into commercial African violet potting soil and gave them some water.  They all survived and are growing vigorously.  (Look out, Green Scenes spring plant sale!)  Some of the plants have been under grow lights, but the rest are on a table inside a south window.  The thermostat in my house is set at 66 (cooler at night), and I’m not very diligent about watering.  From what I have read for this article, I see that the plants on the table are showing signs of light deprivation, and many, after always being watered from the bottom, have mineral crystals on the surface of the soil.  I will heed the recommendations reviewed above and flush all the plants.  I will also add artificial light to the plants on the table.  Those are easy changes that will fit with my usual lackadaisical approach, and I look forward to seeing more of my new plants bloom.

May I  boldly suggest that, if African violets can survive under the conditions in my home, chances are they will survive in your home too?  As with many other houseplants, too much care, as in too much watering and pampering, seems to be worse than a bit of neglect.  Besides, having a little plant in full bloom in the dull days of winter is well-worth the effort needed to grow it.  Considering the ready availability and low cost of these plants, the worst-case scenario is that you enjoy a cheery little plant and replace it with another just as sweet if necessary.  My hunch is, however, that you’ll find yourself adding, rather than replacing, when you realize how forgiving, hardy, and rewarding African violets are.

 

 

SOURCES

 

http://ucanr.edu/sites/EDC_Master_Gardeners/files/168846.pdf  “African Violets: East-to-Care-for Flowering Houseplants,” by Sarah Preiss-Farzanegan.

 

http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/aviolets.html  “African Violets: Seven Steps to Success, by Dr. Leonard Perry.

 

www.avsa.org/sites/default/files/files/Basic%20Care%20for%20African%20violets.pdf  “Basic Care of African Violets,” by Jean Marie Ross

 

www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/Portals/0/Gardening/Gardening%20Help/Factsheets/African%20Violets2.pdf  “African Violets”

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