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How to Grow and Care for African Violets 
 
by Kath Gilliam May 19, 2005

African Violets are lovely indoor plants that love sunshine, constant supply of water, occasional feeding, and semi-annual re-potting. They can easily be cultivated by the rank amateur gardener.

A great way to cheer and brighten up a kitchen year-round is by growing African violets. Even a black-thumbed individual whose only gardening companion is the Grim Reaper can sustain pots of these pretty plants by providing them with things we all enjoy: sunshine, food, routine, a nice home, and an occasional extreme makeover.

Indeed, African violets are African, but they are not violets. Captain Baron Walter von Saint Paul, who discovered them in the Usambara Mountains of Africa, noted their resemblance to violets and named them. In fact, their botanical name is saintpaulica.

Early on, the African violet was characterized by a blue-violet flower and heart-shaped glossy leaves, but through years of hybridization, many varieties have developed. They come with blossoms in all shades of violet, lavender, pink, white, red, and recently yellow, and even variegated of two colors, with clusters of flowers varying in number.

The leaves of African violets have also changed as hybrids developed — they are glossy and flat, come with curly or white edges and in several hues of green. The many different combinations produce interesting varieties that create a beautiful display and make it a lot of fun to spruce up the indoors with splashes of living color.

Sunshine

African violets are like children, really. They have definite preferences and meeting these needs renders them agreeable. Originally, African violets were only available to those who could duplicate the warm, moist environment of the tropical clime of their origin, but the advent of central heating and air conditioning that stabilized home temperatures made them available to every household. These plants prefer a temperature between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit and the moderate indirect light of a sunny location. Humidity also affects their health, but this can be artificially recreated with light misting or the steamy atmosphere of a kitchen or bathroom.

Home

African violets also love to lavish in a bath and then drip dry.

The soil should be a mixture of 2/3 good quality potting soil and 1/3 perlite, the little white pellets found in potting mixes. Even bags marketed as African violet soil can generally stand an extra helping of perlite.

It's particularly important for the successful growth of African violets that they be potted in a wicking container. They like to keep their feet wet. There are lovely ceramic pots fashioned specifically for African violets. Typically, they have a pot-within-a-pot characteristic, with the larger pot holding water and an overflow spout, and the smaller pot holding the soil and plant. The lower pot will hold enough water to reduce care of the plant to a weekly session. The only drawback to pots is their price, and they are not absolutely necessary. As long as the pot holding the plant has a hole in the bottom and some receptacle beneath (like a saucer) that will hold water, the African violet will live and bloom in comfort.

Speaking of water, violets can be a little persnickety in the water department. They don't like to be watered directly and will demonstrate their displeasure by curling up and dying if water gets on their leaves. (Dramatic, aren't they?) They will tolerate very light misting as long as the moisture can sink in before the histrionics begin. It's entirely possible, and perhaps advisable, to take the calm, safe route and water entirely from the bottom.

Food

Although African violets get nutrition from sunshine and soil, the soil's nutrients can be depleted over time so it will be necessary to feed it. Commercially available African violet food can be found at nurseries, hardware stores, and even the grocery. It only takes between 7 and 10 drops of the liquid added to the water reservoir on a semi-monthly basis to keep the plants healthy and encourage blooming. One bottle of food can feed several plants for an entire year, but it should be replenished annually with a fresh bottle.

Routine

African violets will flourish with a weekly routine of watering and removing the lower leaves and blossoms as they pass their prime. In fact, in a few months the plant will be in danger of overgrowing the pot. When that happens, it's time to re-pot your African violet.

Extreme Makeover

Your first re-potting may be slightly daunting, as you will naturally be reluctant to interfere with something that is obviously loving life. However, the plant's longevity, beautiful symmetry, and health require it.

Here is how you do it. First, grasp the thick stem at the point it emerges from the soil and uproot the entire plant. It is possible that other stems have spontaneously started life in the pot and they should also be removed. Discard the old soil and replace it with a new batch of loosely packed soil and perlite mix. Remove the lower leaves until only a nice circle of new leaves remain. Measure three inches from the top, then cut and discard the lower stem and root system. Pare the outer covering to about an inch from stem so the fleshy interior remains. Then submerge the fleshy stem into soil so the leaves rest just above the surface of the soil. Pack the soil down only to the point that the stem remains upright and replenish the pot with fresh water and food.

Seeing a gorgeous, full plant reduced to a slight stubby baby can be a shock, but you have just done a great service for your African violet; you renewed its lease on life and gave it an opportunity for continued growth and development.

New plants can be started by re-potting the other stems in the manner described above. An even easier method is just to lay a healthy single leaf on the top of a pot of fresh, moist soil. In a few weeks, a new African violet will begin from roots that grow on the underside of the loose leaf. Obviously, it will take quite a bit longer to grow a blooming plant this way, and an exact placement of the plant in the pot is impossible, but this method demonstrates how prolific the African violet can be under the right circumstances.

Gifts of African violets have traditionally symbolized faithfulness and loyalty, and with a little tender care the novice can easily supply himself and many others with their bountiful loveliness. 


 




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