Friday, May 18, 2012

Humble Advice On Growing African Violets

I once worked with a woman that I dubbed the “African violet guru”. She had a vast collection of African violets lined up next to each other on the window ledge in her office. That ledge faced south, and the sun beat down on her little plants all afternoon, year round. There were no curtains to filter the sunshine, and the blinds were never lowered at any time during the day. When I first started at that job, way before I realized that she’d been growing her plants this way for years, I felt compelled to straighten her out, being the experienced plant grower and all. I even went so far as to condescendingly remark “You know, it’s not a very big deal in the winter, but come summer, you shouldn’t keep African violets in the southern sun for so many hours; they’re going to burn.”

Miss Violet-Expert didn’t say anything, she just smiled (the way you do when someone has said something foolish and you don’t feel compelled to say anything in return in your defense because a) you don’t want to hurt their ignorant feelings or b) they’re so off track that you’re more amused than anything else – so you just smile).

Having been shunned, I secretly hoped that those little plants would fry when the hottest months of the year - July and August – arrived. Since I’d started working there in November, I concluded that the sun just wasn’t hot enough yet to burn her little collection of nauseatingly perky violets, but that come summer, she’d learn her lesson, albeit the hard way. And she wouldn’t wave away my sensible – and generous - advice so readily next time. Of course, all this arrogance was way before I ‘understood’ this woman’s mystical connection with African violets. So I do confess that I had vain thoughts, and I did smugly expect her plants to scorch. But the darn things never did. Instead, they remained remarkably healthy with no signs of discontentment, which was surprising. And they were also full of blooms day in and day out, which was irritating astonishing. For most of the year, there was a flower extravaganza on her southern windowsill.

To say that I was humbled by this experience would be a tremendous understatement. But I was also quite envious of her natural knack with plants that don’t cooperate easily with me, even though I do understand their needs very well, and try (okay, not always) to accommodate them. But I don’t blame the plants; I blame my growing habits: In all honesty, it’s my fault that these pretty plants fail to flower, because I eventually lose interest in them and stop providing the care they need: adequate light, sufficient humidity, and so on.

So at least I’m honest about my shortcomings. And I’m able to swallow my pride and admit that ‘I am not the infinitely-wise plant grower that I believe I am’. After coming to terms with the fact that my co-worker was quite experienced – and talented – with African violets, I dropped the condescending attitude and humbly complimented her on her lovely plants. She smiled (warmly this time), clipped a few leaves off her prized beauties and offered them to me. I took them home, rooted them, potted them and promptly killed them. And never told Miss Violet-Expert. When she asked after a few months “How are your plants doing?” I simply smiled and said “Growing like weeds”. In the trashcan.

But that was then.

After many years of taking no interest in African violets, I finally picked up a couple to try again. I took proper care of them this time around, making sure to provide them with all their needs. And it paid off; after a short rest period, they rewarded me with flowers. I was bursting with pride. Take that Miss Violet-Expert.

Although I’m by no means an expert with African violets, I would like to share whatever knowledge I’ve gathered over the years with my readers. Humbly.

Caring For African Violets

Growing wild in east Africa among shaded rocky ledges in the Usambara Mountains, African violets were officially discovered in 1892 by the Baron Walter von Saint Paul, a German governor of a northeastern province in Tanganyika, which is now part of Tanzania. Baron Walter von St. Paul sent seeds of his “Usambara Violet” home to his father in Germany where the plant acquired the name “Saintpaulia”. The African violets enjoyed some success in Germany and other European countries as houseplants, and were finally brought to the North American continent by the California firm ‘Armacost and Royston’ in 1926 by importing seeds from German and British greenhouses specializing in the plants. Since then, hundreds of cultivars have been developed that have introduced a huge variety of flower and leaf colours, shapes and sizes for our enjoyment.

You can grow your African violets in a southern location during the winter, but you should move them further back from the window, filter the sun with sheer curtains or relocate them to a different area of the home between the months of March and September. The late afternoon sunlight of a west-facing location may be suitable all year long but the room itself may be too hot during the summer. If you choose this location, make sure there is proper ventilation and air circulation to help prevent pest infestations. Also, check your plant regularly for signs of thirst; soil dries much faster in a warm room. A bright, unobstructed northern windowsill seems to be a favourite spot with many African violet growers, and there are enough sources of information that support this. You can try growing your plants there, but if you notice after a prolonged period that there is no flower production, you may have to move them to a brighter spot with some sunshine, particularly during the winter. An east-facing window that offers some early morning sun is a great choice and seems to do the trick in promoting flower production and in keeping the plants satisfied all around.

To summarize the lengthy paragraph above with another lengthy paragraph: African violets require just the right amount of bright light, or indirect sunlight, to keep them healthy and to encourage them to shower you with pretty flowers. And where that bright light comes from varies since the duration and intensity of sunshine fluctuates from season to season. For example: a southern windowsill in the winter may provide your African violets with just the right amount of sunshine, but that same spot can be harmful on a sizzling summer day. But don’t worry too much about this; your plants will let you know whether or not they are happy in their spots. African violets that do not receive enough light stretch towards the sun, produce little or no flowers, and develop elongated dark green leaves and gangly weak stems. On the other hand, compact, brittle growth, washed-out foliage, short petioles, stunted development and yellow leaves are a few symptoms of too much light.

One of the greatest attributes of African violets is that they grow remarkably well in artificial light. As a result, you don’t need to give up growing these lovely plants just because you can’t provide enough natural light; consider growing them under fluorescents instead. This is a wonderful alternative because it opens up a world of possibilities. Imagine setting up a shelf in the darkest corner of a room that showcases blooming African violets under the glow of growing lights, or placing a few of these pretty plants on top of furniture that is nowhere near a window, knowing that the artificial lights will keep them healthy and happy. The decorative ideas are limited only by your imagination. Anyway, position standard African violets about 10 – 12 inches away from the lights; the distance for miniatures and semi-miniatures should be about 8 inches. In either case, your plants will eventually provide you with signs of whether they are receiving the proper amount of light; adjust accordingly when necessary. Give your plants 12 to 16 hours of light per day; invest in a timer that will regulate the amount of light your plants receive by automatically switching them on and off at the same time every day. African violets thrive under the reasonably-priced cool white fluorescents, but some growers say that putting one cool white and one warm white in the same two-tube fixture produces better results. I only use cool whites and they seem to be doing the trick.

Over-watering is the fastest way to kill an African violet so be careful with that watering can. Always keep the soil evenly moist but never soggy. Allow the surface of the soil to dry, and then water thoroughly. Make sure you grow your plants in a light, fast-draining and porous medium. There are commercial potting mixes available that are specifically-formulated for African violets, but you may find that many of them are quite heavy; you may prefer to mix your own. Check the internet for soil recipes. Sorry, I don’t have any offhand to recommend, but there are many other websites that do.

Three more factors that play an important role in keeping African violets thriving are humidity, temperature and fertilizer. These plants like it warm and humid, and they need to be fed regularly to supply them with the energy required to produce flowers for most of the year. Average household temperatures that keep you comfortable will keep your plants comfortable as well. Daytime temperatures should range between 21°C to 27°C (70°F to 80°F), and nighttime temperatures should be slightly cooler, 16°C to 21°C (60°F to 70°F). Try to maintain humidity levels between 40 and 70 percent; dry air is detrimental to an African violet’s overall health, and it also encourages pest infestations. Increase humidity by placing the plants on a pebble tray filled with water, or by adding a humidifier close by.

Fertilizers are an important source of food for African violets. You can use a water-soluble, balanced formula with equal amounts of primary nutrients - nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) – such as a 20-20-20, or one with more phosphorus like 10-30-20 or 15-30-15. In any case, purchase a fertilizer that is specially-labeled for African violets and feed your plants regularly if they are actively growing and visibly healthy. How often and how much? Well... Some folks prefer to feed their African violets once a month with the dosage recommended by the manufacturer of the product they are using. Others fertilize every two weeks at 1/3 or 1/2 strength. And still others prefer to feed with every watering at 1/4 to 1/5 the regular dosage, believing that a very mild mix is less stressful to the plant and that African violets like to be fed steadily but in small amounts. The feeding method you decide on is initially up to you but the last word will come from your plants, which will provide you with important feedback on whether you are feeding too much or not enough. A reduction in growth, a loss in leaf colour and little or no flower production may indicate that the plant needs fertilizer. On the other hand, tight centers and new leaves that take on a rusty appearance can be indications of over-fertilization.

African Violets and Hydroculture

Yes folks, I grow African violets in the hydroculture system, like I do every other plant in my home. And the results are amazing; the plants flourish in this alternative growing style. There are three ways to introduce your own plants to hydroculture:

1) Convert the plants by washing their roots carefully and potting them up in the clay medium.

2) Take leaf cuttings, root them in water and start new plants in hydroculture.

3) Remove all the roots, scrape the stem, set it in a glass of water, bag the whole plant, then wean it from the bag when new roots form and move it into hydroton.

When I decided to include some care information about African violets, I didn’t intend to write something this long, especially since I’m not very experienced with them. But the recent flower production that my plants flattered me with has obviously gone to my head, and here I am.

Careful watering combined with adequate light, humidity, fertilizer and warmth is the key to success with these plants. But don’t just take my word for it; explore the internet where oodles of care information is available at the click of a button.


  1. Richard takes great care of some African violets that someone gave me from work.
    He agrees with what you have written, "most plants will let you know what they need", you have to keep an eye on them.

    1. It's true; plants give us message, and all we need to do is pay attention.