If you can't travel to Africa to enjoy endless savannas teeming with wildebeests, tawny lions slinking through grassy plains and sprawling herds of elephants lumbering toward muddy water holes, you can at least grow a plant from that fascinating part of the world.
The African violet was first collected from Tanganyika (now called Tanzania) and Kenya in the 1700's by Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire. He was so enamored with their fuzzy leaves and pretty blooms that he mailed samples back to his father, an amateur botanist. In honor of the Baron, African violets were given the scientific name “Saintpaulia ionantha.” Today, there are more than 2,000 different hybrids grown world-wide, and they are one of our most popular houseplants.
An African violet makes a great Christmas gift. Anyone who loves plants, but doesn't want to garden outdoors, will enjoy growing African violets. By following a few simple guidelines, they are easy to grow and produce beautiful clusters of blooms.
When asked why she liked growing African violets, Elizabeth Moody, garden club member, replied, “I just love their happy blooms. If you have several plants, you will have at least one in bloom and can enjoy their pretty clusters of flowers for long periods of time.”
Dalene Kelly, member of the Yuma Orchid and African Violet Society, has grown African violets for many years.
“African violets have a reputation for being hard to grow. Actually, with indirect sunlight, a damp but not wet soil, and a little fertilizer, they grow quite well here in Yuma.”
African violets need 10-12 hours of indirect light daily, with the remaining hours spent in darkness. If you become serious about growing African violets, you might want to invest in two 40-watt fluorescent bulbs to place about a foot above your violets.
“If an African violet isn't receiving enough light, the plant will develop leaves that reach upward, trying to find more light and you won't have blooms. If there is too much light, the leaves will turn greenish-yellow, growth will slow, and flowering will decrease,” Kelly said. “African violets grow best with some humidity in the air.”
To help add humidity, you can fill a plant's saucer with water and enough gravel to raise the bottom of the pot away from the water. Violets can be grown in a commercial soil-less mix made up of 3 parts sphagnum peat moss, 2 parts vermiculite and 1 part perlite. A little lime can be added to balance the acidity of the peat moss. Many gardeners choose to use a commercial African violet soil mix, instead. The goal is to create a light soil that allows air and water to move easily through it.
When potting an African violet, take care to position the plant so that the crown is just above the soil's surface. Fertilize monthly with an African violet fertilizer, such as “Peter's for Violets”, or a fertilizer of your choice.
“I used to use an African violet fertilizer, but I found that one dropper of Schultz's all-purpose fertilizer in a gallon of water works well for both my houseplants and my African violets,” JoAnne Mowczko, Yuma Garden Club member, said.
The easiest way to water a violet is to set the pot in a water-filled saucer. This allows water to be absorbed through the drain hole in the bottom of the pot without having the water touch the plant's leaves. Water can permanently spot a violet's leaves; and if the plant is in strong sunlight, the water spots will rot the leaves. Once the soil feels moist, remove the pot from the water and place it back on top of its gravel/water-filled saucer.
Gardeners always have their own special method of caring for plants. Trudy Gauntt, president of Yuma Orchid and African Violet Society, uses a different watering method.
“When you have a lot of plants, soaking them in water becomes time consuming. A faster way to water is with self-watering pots. This watering system allows me to leave town for 2-3 weeks and not worry about finding someone to water my violets. So far, it has worked well,” Gauntt said.
Don't place violets where fans or air conditioners blow directly on them because drafts often cause buds to drop. They grow best when the room temperature is between 70 and 80 degrees.
Overwatering is a problem with African violets. Too much water will allow the fungus, Pythium ultimum, to grow and rot the plant's roots and crown.
African violets make a great “pass along” plant; one that is easily shared with fellow gardeners.
“I enjoy trading violet leaves with my friends and rooting them to start new plants,” Mowczko said. “Growing a plant from your friend's plant gives it special meaning. Right now, I have ‘Elizabeth' and ‘Dalene' violets growing. To root a leaf, I use a sterile knife to cut off a mature leaf with one inch of its stem attached. Place the stem in a small vase or tube of water. A plantlet will develop near the bottom of the leaf. Patience is the key, because it takes a while for roots to grow. Once roots appear, the plantlet can be transferred to a pot.”
Trudy Gauntt uses a different method. “I bury the stem and ¼ of the leaf in damp vermiculite. I keep the vermiculite moist, and a new plant will eventually grow.”
Karen Bowen is a master gardener and member of Yuma Garden Club. This column is sponsored by the Federated Garden Clubs of Yuma.
To learn more about African violets and orchids, attend a meeting of the Yuma Orchid and African Violet Society. They meet at the Foothills Library, 1 p.m., on the second Thursday of each month. You are encouraged to bring a leaf or two from your own African violets to pass along to other club members.
At their December 13 meeting, guest speaker Harry Phillips, from Andy's Orchids of California in Encinitas, California, will be discussing miniature orchids and how to grow them in terrariums. If you would like to purchase plants for gifts, the club will be selling orchids, potting soil for African violets, chimera African violets with polka-dots or stripes on their flowers, and pots for growing orchids.