A member of the gesneria family, the African violet will yield plenty of blooms to those who are able to tend to its needs. Its flowers come in various shapes and in dazzling whites, blues, yellows, pinks and violets, some variegated. Easy to grow, the African violet is a hybridist's dream. There are now miniature, semi-miniature, standard and creeping varieties.
Queen of the indoor plants, the African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha) was discovered in the North of Tanzania in 1892 by Baron Walter von Saint Paul. Originally, its flowers seemed limited to blue, white and lavender. In 1936 some ten varieties were introduced in the United States, among them, the Blue Boy which gave us the double-flower "fantasy" varieties (curled, dentate and serrated petals.)
Light is essential to the growth and development of plants. The African violet is no exception. Its flowering is conditional upon the availability of adequate lighting which can be either natural or artificial.
Ideally, African violets must be placed near a window facing east or west. You should also turn the pot a quarter of a turn every week to prevent the plant to turn towards the light.
Ideal for those who like to exhibit in violet shows, artificial lighting affords you better control. Required equipment includes a well-proportioned shelf, an automatic timer and fluorescent tubes. Although special horticultural tubes are better suited to the job, ordinary cool white tubes are adequate for African violets.
Artificial lighting requires regularity and consistency. You should give your plants 12 hours of lighting every day, from tubes that are installed 25 to 35 cm above the plants. Rotate the plants that are at the end of the shelf one quarter of a turn every day. For optimum results, place the violets with dark leaves closer to the source of light, those with lighter foliage and the variegated species on the lowest shelf which is generally cooler, unless it is close to a radiator.
African violets are at their growing best when raised in temperatures between 18-20ºC and 22-24ºC. That is the temperature that prevails in most houses. Hence the African violet's nickname: Queen of the indoor plants. Such temperatures promote a quick flowering cycle and better absorption of available nutrients. It's important, however, to minimize temperature variations (between day and night) to avoid the formation of dew that stains the foliage when it dries.
At temperatures over 24ºC, plants tend to deteriorate. Flowers become smaller, stems weaken and leaves vary in size from one to the other.
Below 18ºC, growth slows down noticeably. If, for whatever reason, temperature must be lowered, you should reduce the frequency of watering.
African violets can be watered from the bottom or from the top. What's important is not to wet the leaves. Two important rules must also be observed. First, give the plant the quantity of water it requires, that is however much the soil can absorb, no more, no less. The second rule is to avoid watering until the soil is lightly dry. To know whether the time is right for watering, weigh the plant in your hand or check the colour of the soil.
Liquid and water-soluble fertilizers are best suited to African violets. They are assimilated rapidly and act faster than other fertilizers. A natural fertilizer such as fish emulsion is an excellent choice for an eco-responsible gardener. For optimal performance with soluble fertilizers, alternate between fertilizers 15-30-15 and 20-20-20, making sure you follow the manufacturer's instructions.
Repotting is necessary to renew the supply of nutrients found in the soil. To find out if the time has arrived to repot, gently remove the violet from its pot. If the roots have spread, repot. If not, simply put the violet back into its pot.
Use African violet soil for repotting or make up your own soil, using the following recipe:
- 7 parts Agro-Mix
- 2 parts vermiculite
- 1 part perlite
- 1 part black soil
Good soil is light and porous, sterile, insect- and disease-free. It has the ability to absorb and retain water and fertilizer well.
Conventional plastic pots are those that best suit African violets. They're light, practical, economical and reusable. They prevent rapid evaporation of water. Integrate African violets to your décor using flowerpot covers that harmonize well with existing accessories and colours.
Here's a simple method for successful repotting.
- Remove the violet from its pot.
- Place the old pot in a larger pot (pots are usually sold in increments of 2 cm).
- Fill the space between the pots with damp soil.
- Pack lightly and remove the smaller pot. Place the plant in the space left by the smaller pot and fill with soil.
When repotting is complete, cut off a few leaves from the bottom row. Water lightly and wait until the soil is completely dry before watering again. Reduce evaporation and promote rooting by keeping the violet away from direct sunlight for 15 days.
Insects and diseases
Insects and diseases can show up at any time. You can minimize the extent of potential problems by being alert and conscious of applicable prevention methods such as isolating African violets for two months before integrating them to your collection, inspecting plants regularly and removing infected parts or parts that are being attacked by insects. If problems persist, treat the plant.
This widespread insect looks like a ball of cotton wool and grows around the axils (angles between leaves and stems), in the soil, around the roots or under the leaves. It can cause serious damage to African violets. It moves slowly and is often mistaken for dirt. Its main manifestations include a loss of plant vigour, softening of the foliage and an interruption of flowering. Since the foliage of violets stains easily and is sensitive to many products, it is better to prevent rather than to intervene. So, the best prevention is to maintain plant vigorous and healthy with proper maintenance. In the case of a small infestation, it is preferable to re-start cuttings instead of treating. Select a few healthy leaves and make sure there are no mealybugs. Eliminate severely infested plants.
Multiplying by leaf cuttings
- Take a healthy, strong and mature leaf on the plant with a utility knife.
- Re-cut the stem at about 3-4 cm from the leaf at an angle of 45°.
- Insert the stem in an African violet potting mix; prevent the leaf from touching the soil.
- Cover the container with a transparent plastic bag over small sticks to maintain humidity during rooting. Prevent the bag from touching the leaves.
- After 5 to 8 weeks, small shoots will emerge at the base of the leaf. When they reach about 5 cm, separate from the mother-leaf and pot them.
Since they're easy to cultivate, African violets are accessible to everyone. Whether or not you have a green thumb, they will reward your efforts with pretty flowers all through the year.