African violets

African violets bloom virtually non-stop.

Years ago, I was invited to my aunts’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a rainy, dreary day outside, but I walked into her home and it felt like spring. She had African violets on window shelves throughout her home and they were all in bloom!

The African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha) originates from the coastal woods of East Africa. The name comes from a combination of where it originated geographically, East Africa, to its resemblance to our traditional violet.

It has a tendency to mutate easily so today breeders have developed a variety of flowers and leaves that you can choose from. The size of this beautiful houseplant ranges from 6 to 16 inches in diameter. The colors of the flowers are numerous with choices of the well-known blue-violet to lavender, a fuchsia to pink or even white.  

My aunt’s home was a showcase, chronically her first purchase and then subsequent purchases for a different color, size flower or leaf. Her love of the flower made her an expert at caring for them and these plants responded by blooming almost nonstop.

If you are looking for a touch of spring in the winter months, grow one or more of these plants in your own home. Once set up with the right lighting and proper watering, they are easy to maintain.

n Lighting: Lighting is crucial in producing blooms on your African Violet. A bright area is needed but without direct afternoon sunlight. Usually an east or west window is a safe bet, but everyone’s home is different. If they are placed in a south window they will need afternoon protection.

The results of too much light will turn the leaves a pale green. Too little light will have an opposite effect on the leaves and the leaf petioles will elongate taking away that beautiful symmetrical shape. You may have to experiment a little to see where your plant will thrive in your home. Rotate the pot a quarter turn each day to keep the plant growing evenly.

n Artificial Lighting: Artificial lighting is another alternative. Hang fluorescent lights from 4 to 12 inches above the plants for approximately 14-16 hours a day to encourage growth and blooming. The violets need at least 8 hours of darkness to produce flowers so be sure to turn the lights off each night.

n Soil: The soil for this plant needs to be well drained, porous and fertile. There are numerous stores and nurseries that sell a special mixture for African violets. If you are a novice, this would be a good choice. A water-soluble fertilizer will help to maintain a healthy plant (read the label).

n Pots: Placing your plant in a decorative clay pot has great appeal but the water evaporates more quickly in a clay pot and may require more watering. An alternative is plastic or a clay pot that is glazed on the inside area. Be careful not to get a pot that is too large as the plant likes to be root bound when flowering.

Think 2-3” pots for small beginner plants. Whatever the size, the bottom of the pot must have drainage holes in the bottom so that the plant is not sitting in water.

n Watering: When watering, tepid water is best. If cold water touches the leaves, it may damage and discolor them, you can use a paper towel to soak up any water that inadvertently gets on the leaves.  Your plant needs to be moist, but well drained. Allow the top of the soil to dry out before watering again. Too much water will cause the roots to rot and the plant will die. Too little water will limit growth and flowering.

There are two ways to water, from the top of the plant and bottom watering. Watering the plant from the top will help to remove the excess salt in the soil by adding water until it comes out the drain holes. Be careful not to get water on the leaves. If you choose to water the plant from the bottom, place a saucer under the pot and fill it with the water. The plant will absorb the moisture.  After about 30 minutes, drain the saucer so the plant is not sitting in the water, never leave an African violet sitting in water, it will rot the roots.

As with any houseplant, if you bring a new one into your home, quarantine it first. There is always the chance of insect or mite infestation and any new plant could affect your other houseplants.  

You may eventually want to try your hand at increasing your plant population without purchasing more violets. Older plants develop more than one crown giving you an advantage of knowing where to separate them. But, African violets are delicate and this takes extra care so not to damage the root system. Waiting until you are comfortable with handling your plants would be a good decision.

If you are looking for an early touch of spring, try an African Violet!  Plants have a way of growing on us.

(Joyce Ziembo is a master gardener volunteer with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Allegany County.)