By Julie Harris, Master Gardener
African Violets are a popular houseplant because they are low maintenance and if cared for properly, will bloom several times a year. African Violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) were discovered in the 1890s by Baron Walter von Saint Paul in Tanzania. Ionantha refers to the violet color of the flowers, although many hybrids and varieties are now available, including different flower colors. Today, you can find African Violets that are white, pink, maroon, blue, lavender, violet, and deep purple.
African Violets can be found in different sizes ranging from 4 to 8 to 16 inches wide to more than 16 inches wide. They have a mounded or round form. Different varieties may have different flower and leaf shapes. The flowers may be single, semi-double, double, ruffled or star shaped. Leaves may be round, heart-shaped or oval and have a fuzzy, velvety texture.
African Violets should be planted in containers no more than one-third the width of the plant’s leaf span. They have fine roots and require well-drained soilless potting mix with a pH of about 6.2 – 6.5. Plant containers should have at least one hole in the bottom to allow water to drain. They should be repotted in fresh potting mix once a year. Fertilize the plant each time you water them. Use one-quarter of the recommended amount of fertilizer to keep the roots from being damaged. Fertilizers specially formulated for African Violets can be purchased.
In their natural habitat, African Violets received filtered light from the forest canopy. In your house, they need 10 – 16 hours of light and 8 – 10 hours of darkness to flower. They will grow best in a bright, north-oriented exposure; although in the winter months, they may prefer a southern exposure. Fluorescent or LED grow lights can also be used. If your plant has dark, healthy leaves but no blooms, try increasing the light. Conversely, if your plant is not blooming and has pale leaves, reduce the light.
As for temperature – if you are comfortable, your African Violet is comfortable. They like 40 – 60% humidity. Grouping plants together is helpful or they can be set on trays of pebbles and water. An even temperature should be maintained and they do not like drafts.
Water with room-temperature distilled water or rain water. The potting mix should be moist at all times but not soggy. Overwatering is a common reason that African Violets do not survive. Water just the potting mix as water may cause leaf spots. Do not mist the foliage as it, too, may cause leaf spotting. African Violets can be watered from above but it is not recommended as the plant is susceptible to crown rot. You can also set the pot in a bowl of room-temperature water, 1 – inch deep. When the soil surface feels moist, remove the plant from the water and allow the water to drain from the pot. Do not let the pot sit in water for more than 30 minutes. You can also use a wicking system (see references below) or use self-watering pots.
Common problems and solutions:
Leaves are long and narrow
Not enough light; temperature is too cool
Leaves are pale
Too much light
Plant is limp and wilted
Over watering; poor drainage
If roots are mushy, brown and slimy, the plant is not likely to survive
Water left on leaves
Pale leaves, lack of growth
Nutrient deficiency, not fertilized regularly
Tight plant centers, rusty-colored leaves
African Violets can provide many years of pleasure in your house if you follow these fairly straightforward rules for nurturing them.