African Violets

African violets are houseplants that most people recognize. They are very popular and easy-to-grow.

Rhonda Ferree, Horticulture Educator with University of Illinois Extension, says "African violets add a welcome splash of color indoors throughout the year."

African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha) is a member of a large, interesting plant family known as Gesneriads. They are originally from tropical East Africa. "As I always taught my University of Illinois horticulture students that understanding where a plant comes from helps understand how to better care for it". Picture an African violet in its native setting alongside tropical waterfalls and mountainous streams. Obviously, we cannot recreate a tropical waterfall in our homes, but we can give the plant what it likes most.

Proper water and light are key to growing African violets successfully in the home. Medium to high light is ideal. They do best with sun in winter and diffused bright light in summer. The plant will grow in lower light, but must have higher light in order to flower.

Irregular and excessive watering results in several problems, so proper, regular watering is important. Ferree suggests watering this plant from the container's bottom because any water splashed on the leaves will spot and discolor the leaves. If watered from below, set the pot in a saucer of water, but remove as soon as moisture appears at the surface.

You may want to give it a good top watering every few months to leach soluble salts from the soil. Do this by watering from the top until the water drains from the bottom a few seconds. Regardless of the watering method, always allow the soil surface to dry thoroughly between watering. Overwatering can be fatal to African violets.

Although these plants tolerate most home conditions, they do best at 70-80 degrees with greater than 30% relative humidity levels. Trim off dead flowers. After flowering, plants rest briefly then reflower with adequate light. While not in flower, use general indoor plant fertilizer at half recommended strength every 3-6 weeks.

Repot only as needed to renew crowded or overgrown plants. It is best to use special African violet potting mix because it contains proper humus amounts.

"If your plant is very old and has a trunk-like stem, you might consider propagating a new plant". Simply cut off a leaf and stem and place it in a loose medium such as vermiculite or sand-mix. Thoroughly wet the pot and place it all in a clear-plastic bag near a window. When the cutting has rooted, a cluster of leaves will form at the base of the stem. Remove the plastic bag and you have a new plant!

As with all houseplants, when you purchase new plants examine them carefully before taking them home. African violet pests and diseases spread very easily among other violets. Be especially watchful for distorted and yellowing leaves, which could be a sign of the incurable cyclamen mites or mealybug insects.

Ferree says that African violets are not just for indoor use. "Try adding an African violet as a focal point in your flowers beds this summer." "Or use it in a container arrangement". "Just remember to overwinter them indoors".