Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Americans rank African violets as favorite houseplant

With their soft fuzzy leaves and delicate blossoms, it's easy to see why Americans rank the African violet as one of their favorite houseplants.

Is this charming plant really from Africa as the name suggests? They were officially discovered in the 19th century in a region in Tanzania, Africa by the German governor Baron Walter von St. Paul, who had an interest in botany. Their botanical name is Saintpaulia honoring him.

 Their small size allows them to be grown in small spaces and under the right conditions, they will bloom repeatedly indoors. Flowers come in shades of blue, purple, lavender, pink, red, white, bi-colored and multi-colored. Their form ranges from single, star-shaped to double, fringed and ruffled flowers. Leaves can also be ruffled, scalloped, quilted and variegated.

African violets like bright light, but not direct sun. The best location is a northern or eastern window.

If there is too little light, the leaves will be thin and dark. Leaf stems will be long and thin as if they are stretching for the light. If there is too much light, the plants will look stunted with short leaf stems and small crinkled leathery leaves.

Humidity is beneficial to African violets and a humidity tray is recommended. Place the violet on a shallow tray with gravel or decorative marbles. A shallow layer of water will provide extra humidity as it evaporates. Do not sit the bottom of the pot in the water; this will cause the violet to become too wet and its roots will rot.

African violets prefer a light loose potting soil that is high in organic matter and provides good drainage. Any container will work as long as it has drainage holes. If you prefer a more decorative effect, set your pot inside of the decorative container.

Proper watering of an African violet remains a controversial topic among violet growers. The soil should be evenly moist while keeping the crown of the plant dry. Keep cold water off the leaves. Water with room temperature water.

Watering the plant from the top is the easiest method. Water the surface of the soil until it starts to drip out the drainage holes. To water from the bottom, fill the saucer under the pot and let it stand until the soil surface is moist and then drain off the excess water. With either method, wait until the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch before watering again.

Or, to water continuously, use a fiberglass wick. Insert one end through a hole in the bottom of the pot and fray the end so it spreads over the entire bottom of the pot. Place the plant into the pot and then place the wick into a water reservoir under the pot. The watering will be continuous.

However, when plants are continuously watered from the bottom, salts tend to collect on the surface of the soil. Flush with water from the top about once a month to prevent damaging salt accumulation.

Use a water-soluble fertilizer that is labeled for blooming plants. Fertilize according to the package directions during the active growing season (spring, summer and fall). Omit fertilizer in the winter months.

The Billings Bloomers African Violet Club are having their Annual Show & Sale on Friday, May 6th from 10am-5pm and Saturday, May 7th from 10am-3pm at the St. Andrew Presbyterian Church on 24th St West across from West High School. They will be featuring many new varieties and some Russian hybridized violets. Russian hybridizers focused on bloom size and appeal to the exclusion of all else. Many of the Russian violets have very large blossoms, impressive color and a tendency toward non-uniform rosettes. Now they are huge plants and very symmetrical. In the 90s a few American growers went to Russia and brought back some of the plants thus beginning a commercial relationship between the two countries. Many American growers now are offering huge selections.

Jim Gainan is President of Gainan's Flowers and Garden Center in Billings, MT.