Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

African violets rate high as favored houseplants

May 06, 2012 12:05 am  • 

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. This charming plant was 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.

Russian hybridizers focus on bloom size and appeal to the exclusion of all else. Many of the Russian violets have very large blossoms, impressive colors and a tendency toward non-uniform rosettes. These 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.

However, some of the violet varieties have traveled a lot farther than that! In 1984, NASA launched a Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) into space with 57 experiments. The program was intended to test the effect of long-term exposure to cosmic radiation and lack of gravity for 11 months. NASA schedules ran behind and the satellite was retrieved in January 1990 by the Space Shuttle Columbia. Twenty-five thousand Optimara violet seeds orbited Earth for six years. Many mutations became apparent and some of these "Space Babies," as they are called, have been crossed with Optimara violets.

One mutation resulted in a new characteristic called multiflorescence, having at least 20 open blooms at a time. This may be one of the reasons why the violets that we see today don't look like the ones that grandma had.

African violets can be grown in small spaces due to their petite stature. 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.