Several factors make African violets ‘perfect’ houseplants

Patricia Hanbidge

Most gardeners are hopelessly addicted to seeing if “it will grow.” Even better if there is variety in what you are attempting to grow. The “perfect houseplant” is available in many bloom colours including, but not limited to, purple, purple edged with white, pink, deep rose, light blue or ruffled white. This plant is none other than the African violets, from the genus Saintpaulia.

African violets bloom year round with no specific flowering season, which is probably why they are considered perfect houseplants. But there is more to the story. They are of tropical origin and so are able to tolerate, thrive even, in heated houses. They have thick hairy leaves which protect them against water loss. They can live with the lower winter light levels and do not want even the direct sunlight of January days. If you keep your house at a comfortable temperature for you, your African violet will also be comfortable. They prefer slightly cooler nights, and they are woefully easy to propagate.

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Care of African violets is simple. The growing mix, which can be a peat-based houseplant mix, should be slightly damp. Wait until the soil is dry to the touch before watering. The only way I have killed African violets is by overwatering or potting them in a pot without drainage holes. A balanced fertilizer, 20-20-20 or 7-7-7 in the amounts of 1/8 tsp. per two litres of water can be used with each watering, about once a week.

African violets can tolerate lower light levels than many other flowering plants, but bright light is needed for flowering. Sunny south or west windows are too bright and will cause leaf burn. Even our low light in the winter can sometimes be too bright. The plants are happiest on an east or north window, but watch for cold drafts in the wintertime. Windows are not necessary for successful growing and flowering.

The happiest of these plants live in a house with no window sills and limited east window exposure. So the plants are cycled between grow lights and wherever a blooming plant is needed as they come into bloom. Ordinary florescent tubes, one warm white and one cool white, work just fine. Mature plants should be at least 10 inches away from the light while started cuttings can be six to eight inches. If the plant is too close to the light, the growth will be very dense, compact, and bleached out. Like any other plant, violets will tell you if they are lacking light. The leaves will turn toward the light and a long stem develops. If the light source is not directly overhead, turning the plant a quarter turn each time you water it will keep the plant balanced.

A large part of the charm of African violets is that they seem to attract few pests or diseases. Mealy bugs are the most likely pests and they appear on the undersides of leaves and at leaf axils. Dabbing them with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol works but it may be easiest to simply start a new plant from a leaf cutting that you have carefully cleaned. African violets do best in ceramic or plastic pots. They do not like the salts which develop over time in clay pots and any leaves touching the pot rim will wilt and rot.

Propagation is simple. Break off a healthy leaf, cut the stem at a 45-degree angle, and stick in water until roots form. Yes, I know that the books talk about sterilized potting soil. I don’t bother. Once roots are formed, the leaf is planted, roots and all, in a small pot and set under grow lights. Within a few weeks, the first baby plant will emerge. Usually within three to four weeks you will have anywhere from two to six baby plants poking up around the leaf stem. When the plantlets are about half way up the leaf stem, separate the plantlets so there is one stem with attached roots. Pot these into small containers (individual yogurt cartons with holes poked in the bottom work fine) and set them back under the grow lights. Often within eight to 10 months, they will flower.

Hanbidge is the lead horticulturist with Orchid Horticulture. Find us at www.orchidhort.com; by email at info@orchidhort.com; on facebook @orchidhort and on instagram at #orchidhort.

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