African Violets

African violets are a common houseplant that is relatively inexpensive to buy and easy to care for. They are not true violets, but rather members of the genus Saintpaulia. Those plants that are found commercially are generally the species S. ionantha. The Genus name comes from that of the discoverer, Walter Von Saint Paul-Illaire, who was the German Governor of a province in northern Tanganyika (current day Tanzania) in eastern Africa. The common name comes from their resemblance to true violets.

African violets are readily available in garden centers in a variety of colors from white to deep reds and purples. These plants are usually miniatures, but you may see plants 16" (40 cm) or larger. The plants like a lot of light, but not direct sunlight. Direct sunlight can dry them out and cause them to burn. We keep ours in an east facing window that gets very little direct sunlight. We sometimes keep them in a southern facing bay window in the wintertime, but the glass in the window filters out ultraviolet light so they seem to do OK.

The soil for these houseplants should be well draining. In the wild, they grow in cracks and crevices, so they have adapted to that environment. Water them carefully when the top of the soil feels dry. If you water from the top, water so that none gets on the leaves. You can also water from the bottom or use a wick system to keep the soil evenly moist. In any case, do not let the pot stand in water; this will drown your plant as it uses its roots to breathe as well as drink. Room temperature water is best for watering.

Like over watering, over feeding can be bad for your plant. Use a quality water-soluble African violet fertilizer according to the package. The N-P-K ratio should be even or the N (nitrogen) number should be smallest. Too much nitrogen will make any plant nice and green but with no flowers.

As we mentioned before, these plants grow in tight areas in the wild, so they don't mind being pot-bound. When you find that the plant is drying out quickly between waterings it may be time to re-pot. You may find the old plant has multiple crowns. If this is the case, cut the crowns apart, giving each crown part of the root system. Plant the crowns in new pots with the crown just above the soil. Water well and place a plastic bag with ventilation holes over the pot to maintain humidity and keep the plant from wilting until the root system develops.

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