How to Grow and Care for African Violets (Saintpaulia)

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One of the most exciting plants to add to your garden or grow indoors is the perennial African violets (Saintpaulia). They bloom year-round, are relatively easy to propagate, and have plenty of varieties to suit a personality.

There are more than a thousand different kinds recorded by the African Violet Society of America, Inc. (AVSA), the International Cultivar Registration authority for this plant group. Despite the diversity, there are general principles to keep in mind when raising and keeping them successfully blooming.

History of How Saintpaulias Spread from the African Borders

African violets belong to the family Gesneriaceae, making them not true violets. European colonists first discovered these wild wonders during the late 19th century from the forests of what is now known as Tanzania.

Baron Saint Paul collected and sent seeds to his father, eventually reaching the director of the Kew Royal Botanical Garden, Hermann Wendland, who published it under the genus ‘Saintpaulia’ after the Baron and ‘ionantha’ for ‘resembling a violet’.

During its early introductions, gardeners thought it was difficult to maintain because it easily chilled and withered. Its optimal conditions for consistent cultivation were rarely attained until the dawn of the fluorescent bulb around the 1930s. A decade after, African violet shows and new hybrids emerged.

Current Status of African Violets

Just very recently, Saintpaulia was demoted to a section embedded in the genus Streptocarpus. Aside from the natural species Streptocarpus ionanthus which is most used in forming hybrids, its subspecies also have remarkable characteristics contributing to a diverse gene pool. (*)

African Violet Plant Facts

New scientific nameStreptocarpus ionanthus (H. Wendl.) Christenh.
Common namesAfrican violets, Saintpaulias
SectionSaintpaulia
SubgenusStreptocarpella
GenusStreptocarpus
FamilyGesneriaceae
HeightMiniature: less than 3 in – 6 inSemi-miniature: 6 in – 10 inStandard: 8 in – 12 in or 10 in – 16 inGiant/Large: 12 in – over 16 in
Width (diameter)Miniatures: less than 6 in – 8 inSemi-miniature: 6 in – 8 inStandard: 8 in – 16 inGiant/Large: over 16 inches
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone11A to 12B: 40 °F (+4.4 °C) to 60 °F (15.6 °C)
Native toTanzania and Kenya
Growth habitRosette typeTrailing type
Flower colorsblue, violet, blue-violet, lavender, red, red-violet, pink, pink-violet, white, yellow, yellow-green multicolored, two-toned, bicolored, darker to lighter tones fantasy streaks, chimera/pinwheel, picotee contrasts
Leaf/Foliage shapesOvate to heart-shapedPointed to obtuse leaf apex
Foliage types and variationsBoy/plain, girl/spooned/wavy, variegated, trailing, fringed/wavy/serrated, quilted, velvety/fuzzy, red reverse
Floral types and variationsSingle, Semi-double, Double flower (number of petals)Frilled-/ruffled-/lacy-edged, fluted, or plain/simple margins Star-shaped, wasp-shaped, Cup-shaped, bell-shaped

How to Plant and Grow African Violets

purple african violet

Preparing the Plantlets for Propagation

A blossom stem, matured leaf, sucker, or seed can be starter material. Among these, leaf-cutting is the most common choice.

To propagate African Violets, select a leaf from the middle of the plant and cut it from the stem, including the petiole. About 1 to 1.5 inches of the petiole is suitable. Violet stems, leaves and roots are tender and weak, better avoid them. 

Seeds take longer to mature, yet they produce more foliage. Although risky, suckers grow into crowns when not removed early so that they have a better chance of becoming a young plant or can be divided further for more plantlets.

Potting Soil

A rooting hormone or water can induce root emergence, but plantlets can also be repotted directly, depending on the robustness and the surroundings. They can grow well in a wide range of potting soil types and mixtures, as long as the soil is rich in organic matter, with a slightly acidic pH (6.0 to 6.5). 

A 1-1 vermiculite-sand or vermiculite-potting mix is excellent as a potting medium. Other elements could be perlite, peat moss, pine barks, etc. For suckers, placing the pot inside a Ziplock bag promotes humidity while roots form, around 3 to 4 weeks. Healthy plantlets will start showing new leaves three to four weeks after forming roots.

african violet

Care and Maintenance

Here are some important African violet care tips you should know:

Water

African violet flowers have specific soil moisture requirements, and they cannot be too moist nor too dry. The frequency of watering is also affected by the type of soil, pot, conditions, and plant size. To start, add water until it comes out at the bottom, and allow it to drain throughout a given period but not too dry before watering again. This interval can be longer as the evening passes.

Self-watering pots like a wick pot water from the bottom, but still, watering from the top occasionally is crucial to clear the dust and leach the salts. As plants grow, the need for water increases. In addition, brighter spaces with less humidity entail faster evaporation. Do not add fertilizer just yet, until new leaves appear to indicate that root growth is beginning to stabilize.

Fertilizer

The common recommendation is water-soluble fertilizers, while some online sellers have preferences suited for specific varieties. Any additive is ideally dissolved in water before application and the soil must have enough moisture, so that excess fertilizer and water will immediately go out to the bottom holes.

african violet care

Sunlight

Nowadays, grow lights are readily available, or fluorescent bulbs can support the task, too. Two fluorescent bulbs, 12 -15 inches above the plants, for 16 hours per day and surrounded by reflectors is a sufficient alternative to regular daylight but never directly under the sun. Naturally, enough light and brightness is within 3 feet away from a window facing west or east. 

Pest and Diseases

If ideal maintenance recommendations are not thoughtfully met or followed, pests are inevitable. Too much watering may lead to root diseases. Accumulated fertilizer may produce Petiole rot and other vegetative injuries. 

Mites easily spread in unsterilized soil and inadequate spacing. Insecticidal sprays may control most insects, but flower or leaf damage is highly possible. Others employ an alcohol-water 1:1 mixture, but the last resort is to cut off the affected area.

Pruning

Removal of faded flowers and unhealthy leaves is a good practice. Also, removing suckers is beneficial. A sucker is a young crown of leaves that occasionally shoots out in response to a stressful environment, so it must be removed early on from the stems. Otherwise, nutrients will be redirected to it, causing other parts, especially flowers, to fall off or not fully bloom.

Repotting

Repotting African violets at least once a year or when you notice the plant becomes rootbound. Fresh potting oil should be used to encourage growth. You should water it after transplanting.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Humidity and temperature are factors to consider in raising your African violets. The room temperature should be between 60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Some devices can control humidity in rooms, although these plants can adjust to the average indoor humidity of typical homes. Terrariums, aquariums, and goblets can add flair to a floral display while improving humidity, too!

Uses of African Violets

African violets are ornamentals and usually grown as houseplants, and due to their reputation as hybrid beauties, there are shows, events, and magazines dedicated solely to this plant group. It can be such pride to begin a collection, and possibly try breeding or discovering new crosses, too. The trailing kinds are good hanging plants in well-lit areas, without direct sunlight. The miniatures are windowsill charms, although larger variants are no less elegant! 

Conclusion

If African violets are well cared for, and a grower sticks to a consistent routine, these pots of treasures will truly be rewarding since they can fully bloom all year round and yield lasting foliage!

See more: African violet varieties

*References

*Reference list: 

Christenhusz, M. J. M. 2012. “On African violets and Cape primroses—towards a monophyletic Streptocarpus (Gesneriaceae).” Phytotaxa 46(1):3-9. url: https://www.biotaxa.org/Phytotaxa/article/view/phytotaxa.46.1.2.

Nishii, K., Hughes, M., Briggs, M., Haston, E., Christie, F., De Villiers,M.J., Hanekom, T., Roos, W.G., Bellstedt, D. U. & Moller, M. 2015. “Streptocarpus redefined to include all Afro-Malagasy Gesneriaceae: Molecular phylogenies prove congruent with geographical distribution and basic chromosome numbers and uncover remarkable morphological homoplasies.”  Taxon 64(6) : 1243–1274.  Url: https://gesneriads.info/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/1243_1274_Nishii-downsized.pdf.

Park Brown, S. G. 2020. “African Violets”. University of Florida – IFAS Extension website. Url: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/mg028

Poole, R.T., Osborne, L.S. & Chase, A.R. African Violet Production Guide. University of Florida IFAS-CFREC website. Url: https://mrec.ifas.ufl.edu/foliage/folnotes/africanv.htm

Thomas, P. 2012. “ Growing African Violets. “ University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences – Cooperative Extension. https://secure.caes.uga.edu/extension/publications/files/pdf/C%20660_2.PDF.

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