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When I was a small child, my grandmother’s kitchen window was always filled with beautifully blooming African Violets. Their ruffled flowers of deep blues, periwinkle, pinks, purples and lavenders made me think of fluffy party dresses. Their velvety leaves always tempted a forbidden touch. These plants were always in glorious full bloom. People marveled at what a “green thumb” my grandmother had, as she seemed to have natural gifts with these fussy little exotic plants. It wasn’t until many years later I was told that as soon as the flowers would start to wane she would throw them in the trash and buy new ones at the grocery store. Apparently getting her African Violets to rebloom was an issue.
African Violets (Saintpaulia) might seem like challenging little plants but by understanding what they require in their native environment, you can learn how easy it is to keep them not only alive, but also consistently blooming throughout the year.
Humidity: The native habitat of African Violets is the equatorial cloud forests of Tanzania and Kenya. They are found growing in moist, mossy rock crevices where there is always high humidity, moderate temperatures between 65-80 degrees, and 12 hours of bright diffuse daylight year-round. Since African Violets grow naturally in highly humid environments, it makes sense to create an environment with 50-60% humidity for them in your home. One way to do this is to group them close together with your other tropical plants which will create a nice humid microclimate for them. Setting your plants on a tray filled with pebbles and water (aka humidity tray), keeping the root base above the water, will also create much needed humidity. Do not be tempted to mist your plants, as water collecting in the crown of the plant may lead to crown rot.
Watering: Knowing when and how to water your African Violets is of prime importance. The roots of the African Violet need aeration, so keeping them moderately moist but never soggy is the key. Watering from the bottom so they can soak the water up, over an hour or so, will help to keep water out of the crown of the plant. African Violets like warmer water, around 70 degrees. Watering your plants with cold water can damage the roots as well as the leaves. Do not wait until your plants begin to sag to water them, as you will do damage to the roots as well as any emerging flower buds. Using special African Violet self-watering pots is a wonderful way to keep your plants moderately moist, with a dry crown, while creating a consistent supply of humidity. The African Violet pot is a terra cotta pot within a larger glazed pot. Your African Violet is planted in the terra cotta pot which is then slipped into the water filled glazed pot. Water will slowly migrate through the terra cotta, allowing your African Violet the perfect amount of moisture and humidity. All you have to do is check the water level of the glazed pot and clean it occasionally.
Fertilizing: Fertilizing your African Violet is essential for keeping it blooming throughout the year. Espoma Organic African Violet Food and Dyna-Gro are great options for fertilizing your plants. If adding it in the reservoir of a self watering African violet pot, use it at half strength.
Light: The correct intensity of light as well as the number of daylight hours your African Violet receives will affect the blooming as well as the overall health of your plant. Too little light will turn your leaves very dark green, and you won’t get many blooms. With too much light your leaves will turn pale and scorched looking. A test for the correct amount of light is when you can barely see the shadow of your hand on the plant during the brightest part of the day. Ideally your plants should receive 12-16 hours of diffuse daylight and 8 hours of complete darkness per day. Augmenting available natural light with a grow light can help extend the daylight hours if needed to keep your plants in bloom. Be aware of the change of intensity of light on your plants as the sun goes higher in the sky in summer and lower in the sky in winter. You may actually get more intense light coming directly onto your plants in winter but of briefer duration. African Violets being equatorial don’t understand all of that.
Temperature: Do not let your African Violets get warmer than 80 degrees or colder than 60 degrees. Too much heat will affect blooming, and too much cold can create crown rot. Keep your African Violets away from natural gas fireplaces as the fumes can prevent blooming. Make sure your plants have good air circulation but keep them away from cold drafts especially if placed on a windowsill.
Soil and Re-potting: Potting your African Violets in a soil mix that has good water retention as well as good aeration is essential. The Black Gold African Violet Potting Mix is the perfect blend for repotting your African Violets into. You can repot your violets once a year, separating any new crown growth to make new plants, although African Violets that are slightly root bound will tend to bloom more. When repotting your African Violets, put them into pots that are more wide and shallow rather than deep, their roots grow out not down. Too much moist soil under their roots can lead to root rot. Remember that in their native home they grow on rocks.
Pests: African violets on occasion can get mealy bugs which. Remove the white cottony bugs with a Q tip dipped in alcohol as sprays may cause crown rot. Thrips, mites, and aphids are other common pests found on African Violets. Spotting them early and treating them accordingly will minimize damage and stress on the plant.
Propagation: Most varieties of African Violets are easy to propagate from leaf cuttings. Cut leaves from the area close to the center of the crown, with a stem at least 1 ½ long. Take more cuttings than you need, as not all of the cuttings will root. Insert the stem into a loose moist seed starting mix such as Light Warrior, planting it up to the base of the leaf. Cover the cutting with a clear zip lock bag or a propagation dome and put into indirect light. In about 3 to 4 weeks give the leaf a gentle tug to see if it has set roots. Slowly acclimate your rooting plant to a less humid environment, and when the plant shows signs of active growth, transplant it to a small pot with African Violet potting mix. Your new plant may take up to a year to begin blooming.
You will find that, following these few simple guidelines, African Violets are not as fussy as some might think . You can indeed enjoy healthy blooming African Violets year round. We just have to try to recreate the environment they thrive in, and that is true for all plants.
Visit your local Fifth Season store to check out the wide selection of African Violet plants and accessories. For additional information and professional tips on African Violets, we recommend the following: The African Violet Society of America.