One of my earliest indoor gardening memories is of my grandmother Louise tending a three-tiered, lighted plant stand of garden club blue-ribbon African violets.
She had me bring in buckets of water set out earlier to warm up a bit, and showed me how to apply the water gently with a long-spouted can without splashing any onto leaves to prevent leaf spots.
Her lovely but tender potted plants, botanically named “Saintpaulia“ after Baron Walter von Saint Paul who brought some from Tanzania in 1892, have been hybridized into countless thousands of varieties, making them perhaps the most popular flowering houseplant of all time.
The relatively small, low-growing or cascading plants have luscious, slightly furry green leaves, some with pretty variegation, and clusters of smooth or frilly flowers ranging from white, pink and mauve, to blue, lavender and deep violet, all with a cheery yellow center of stamen. Some flowers are ringed or splotched with contrasting colors as well.
Once you get the hang of their simple needs, growing African violets can become an easy routine. Ideal for windowsills and under office lights, the jungle natives will thrive in bright, indirect light, warmish temperatures and humidity, plus regular watering and light feeding.
Mature plants grow and flower best when they are in small pots - about a third of the diameter of their leaf spread - filled with a very porous potting soil - either special African violet soil, or any good potting soil that has both peat moss and plenty of white, crunchy perlite. Repot plants by gently loosening the old potting soil, and planting back into similar-size pots. While most good flowering container plant fertilizers work okay, it is best to use one of the many specialty African violet fertilizers on the market.
Because the slightly furry leaves will scorch in hot, direct sunlight, or curl upwards in areas that are too dim, place them near an east- or south-facing window, or less than a foot or so from an indoor light.
Humidity is crucial; make sure the plants are not near air conditioner or heater drafts, and place the pots on small gravel-filled trays or saucers with enough water to keep humidity high as it evaporates.
Temperatures that are comfortable for you, are good for African violets as well. They tend to chill very easily in the winter, so keep them several inches away from cold windowpanes.
Water often enough to keep plants moist, never soggy wet or bone dry. My grandmother usually filled her pot trays with tepid water, letting it stand long enough for the plants to soak up moisture, then draining all but just enough to keep the gravel moist. You can also use wicks trailing out of pot drainage holes into water reservoirs to keep plants constantly moist.
Share the Wealth
Propagate African violets by carefully separating individual plants from the bases of old ones, or by sticking healthy leaves into moist potting soil or in water; my grandmother would use kitchen foil to cover the tops of water-filled teacups, which supported the leaves while allowing the long leaf stems to stick down in the water. New plants started growing within a few weeks.
- Cut a healthy, mature leaf from the middle of the plant - not the new stuff or the oldest leaves.
- Use distilled water, or allow tap water stand overnight before using, to let chlorine evaporate.
- Keep the tip of the petiole off the bottom of the glass by suspending the leaf using aluminum foil across the jar top.
- Change water gently every week.
- When roots begin to form (about a month or so), gently pot into African violet potting soil and keep moist, not wet.
- Little plants will soon appear.
Just remember: Though these delicate but easy little windowsill beauties are almost addictive, be gentle with newbies to the world of growing African violets -- not everyone will want as many baby plants as you will have to share!