African Violets not Just for Grandma

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
African Violets not Just for Grandma

When you envision African violets, do you see sad, little plants ensconced in old, cracked containers atop a dusty windowsill?

Well, I’m here to help you see them for what they really are, the most popular houseplants in the world.

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The best known members of the Gesneriad family (Gesneriaceae), African violets are not violets at all, but instead tropical plants in the Saintpaulia species. They come in the standard size (eight inches and over) which is most prevalent, but also as miniatures, semi-miniatures, micros, trailing and chimeras (and even further distinctions of class among their devotees).

I enjoy these little plants, and I think they get a bad rap as being both old-fashioned and difficult to grow. African violets were one of the first plants I grew as a teenager, and I wasn’t that good of a gardener indoor or otherwise. Still, I succeeded.

Although I grow most of mine in antique china, a method to utilize another collecting obsession, my violets are nothing if not inexpensive luxuries. You merely need a container, soil-less potting mix, liquid fertilizer in a 5-10-5 or 4-12-4 ratio and the plants themselves. African violets can be found locally wherever houseplants are sold, but further, online where hybridizers work to create more exotic cultivars. Online is also where you’ll find recently imported Russian and Ukrainian hybrids.

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Often when people visit, they see my African violets, and they feel the need to confess they’ve killed theirs over and over. Then, they ask my secret for keeping mine healthy.

“Don’t get their leaves wet,” I say. They look at me in surprise, but that’s it. African violets don’t like water sitting on their crowns or their leaves because it causes rot. You can clean them with water, but just be certain it is tepid or slightly warm. When I repot my violets, I always clean their leaves, but I don’t let water touch them on a regular basis. How you accomplish this is pretty easy. Choose a “wicking pot,” or gently lift their leaves and water beneath. You’ll notice the wicking pot doesn’t have a drainage hole because the inner pot is unglazed. You place water in the outer glazed pot, and the unglazed pot inside.

Don’t water them too often either. I’m a bit of a lackadaisical houseplant gardener, and I let their soil get very dry before I fill my watering can. Overwatering is the quickest way to kill a houseplant, and with African violets, this is particularly true.

You can purchase specialty potting soil for African violets, but I just use a soil-less mix with plenty of organic matter. Once a month, I supplement their watering with a soluble fertilizer like Shutlz’s or Jack’s Classic. Although some writers suggest fertilizing every time you water, I don’t do so. My organic potting soil has fertilizer in it initially, and I keep watch for a decrease in plant size or yellowing leaves.

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Once planted, set your violet in a sunny window. Those facing east with morning light are best, but a southern exposure is fine in winter. I think violets look most charming when displayed as a group, and they will bloom year round if your house isn’t too warm at night (65-70 degrees F. is best). They do like a warm day temperature of up to 80F.
Like other houseplants, they have common pests and diseases, but with good plant care, I’ve found African violets to be relatively disease free. The most common pests are mealybugs and thrips although mites can also be a problem. The best way to keep your plants healthy is:

  • Don’t overwater.
  • When you buy a new plant, keep it separate from the others until you’re sure it is pest and disease free.
  • Keep the area clean, and don’t crowd plants.
  • Always keep your plants well groomed by removing dead or diseased foliage and blossoms.

If you’d like more information, please visit the African Violet Society of Canada or the African Violet Society of America. Both have great links to hybridizers and growers in your area.

With all the new hybrids available, these plants are some of the best to show off indoors, so remember, African violets aren’t just for grandma anymore.