By Betty Earl
When I was a child, I was totally mesmerized by the intense colors of the African violets that seemed to bloom continuously on my grandmother’s windowsills. I would stare in wonder at those jewel-colored blooms surrounded by collars of fuzzy leaves, fully convinced that only experienced gardeners of my grandmother’s reputation could get plants to bloom so gloriously indoors.
Well, I’m not a kid anymore, and the myriad of African violets cultivars available today are certainly not my grandmother’s violets, either. Nowadays, African violets are available in a wide range of flower sizes, colors and foliage.
Named after Baron Walter von Saint Paul who brought plants from the tropical forests of East Africa, African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) are probably the most popular flowering houseplants of all time. Their great value, besides the fact that they are easy to grow, is that they adapt, thrive and bloom almost continuously indoors. Easy enough for beginners and varied enough for serious collectors.
There are more than 17,000 different African violet cultivars. They range from miniatures (less than 6 inches in diameter), micro-minis (less than 3 inches) and standard violets (10-16 inches) to trailing varieties that naturally branch and spread. Flowers come in shades of blue, purple, lavender, pink, red, green, cream, yellow and white. There are also bi-colored, multi-colored and splotched forms.
Flower shapes also vary from single, semi-double and double to star-shaped, fringed, ruffled and serrated. Leaf types include plain, ruffled, scalloped, spooned, pointed and variegated.
Cultural Requirements for These Jungle Charmers
No matter which leaf type, habit or flower color you select, the care for all types of African violets is the same.
Light is one of the most important elements in getting your plants not only to grow but bloom. They like bright, indirect light such as that from an east-facing window. However, they grow incredibly well under fluorescent lights left on for 14 to 16 hours a day.
The ideal temperature for these charmers is between 65 and 80 F with 50 to 60 percent humidity. If the temperature is too low, growth slows, there are sparse, poor quality flowers and the foliage will curl down around the rim of the pot. If it is too hot and dry, buds fall off or blossoms drop soon after opening. For best results, group plants close together on a surface of moist pebbles in a shallow tray.
Watering is probably the most difficult part of caring for African violets. If the soil is too wet, the plant roots will rot. If the plants are too dry, they will not grow or flower effectively. Whether you water from the top or fill a saucer from below, water when the top of the soil feels dry to the touch. Do not let the pot sit in water, and use only non-softened, room temperature water.
As a general rule, these plants do best in soil that is loose in texture, porous and well drained, with a high percentage of organic matter. There are several good commercial mixes that have been especially blended for African violets. If you consider using one of the all-purpose soilless mixes, add perlite or vermiculite to the mix.
Fertilize violets regularly with any complete water-soluble fertilizer.
Betty Earl is a frequent contributor to this magazine and the author of two books on gardening, In Search of Great Plants and Fairy Gardens: A Guide to Growing an Enchanted Miniature World.