1131 Saintpaulia spp.Common Names: African violet Family: Gesneriaceae (African violet Family)
African violets are dainty little plants with rosettes of heart shaped velvety leaves surrounding short, upright stems that bear clusters of five-petaled flowers in colors ranging from white to shades of blue, pink, purple and red. Happy African violets will bloom for months on end. There are more than 2000 cultivars of African violets. Some have ruffled petals, some double petals, some multi-colored petals, some variegated leaves, some with "quilted" leaves, and some have a trailing habit. 'Mickey Mouse' is a popular miniature that gets only about 6 in (15 cm) across and is tougher than many others. Most of the African violet cultivars were derived from Saintpaulia ionantha and S. confusa. (Confused yet?
Depending on which authority you follow, there are 6-20 species of Saintpaulia. All of them are native to a small region in East Africa, mainly the country of Tanzania. African violets grow in the wild in mountainous tropical cloud forests along stream banks, on rocks or on trees.
CultureAlthough African violets are among the most popular houseplants in the world, they are by no means carefree to maintain. Follow a few simple rules, and you can be successful. Light: For near continuous flowering, African violets need at least 12 hours of bright, indirect light each day; 14 hours is better. They actually do best under "grow" lights. African violets cannot take direct sun during the summer, but during the winter, they should have a sunny position. An east facing window is ideal in summer, but move to a south facing window in winter. Provide artificial light in winter when there is less than 12 hours of bright light a day. Again, 14 hours of bright light per day is best. For the more technical, that is at least 5000 lux. Moisture: Water African violets frequently, keeping the soil evenly moist, but be sure to use a well drained soilless potting mix that does not stay waterlogged. Do not allow the potting mix to dry out, either. Water should be at room temperature since cold water causes the plants to suffer. And, the water should be soft. If your tap water is hard or limey (calcareous), use rainwater or demineralized water instead. Always water the soil carefully, and do not wet the leaves. African violets do best in relatively high humidity, 50% or more. The most successful growers of African violets place the pot on a tray filled with pebbles and water to just below the level of the pebbles. (Don't let the base of the pot stand in the water.) This "humidifying tray" keeps the air around the African violet constantly moist. This is especially important during the winter when home heating can dry the air to relative humidity levels of 20% or less. Kitchens and bathrooms tend to have higher humidity, and may provide better microclimates than other areas in the house. Misting the foliage is good for some houseplants, but never for fuzzy-leafed plants like African violets. African violets should be fertilized every two weeks, all year long, with a liquid fertilizer that is high in potash and phosphate. (High nitrogen encourages leaf growth at the expense of flowers.) The best way to feed African violets is to cut the fertilizer to quarter strength, and add to the regular watering. Hardiness: USDA Zones 11 - 11. African violets must be kept above 60°F (16°C). Most do best when kept 62°-65°F (17°-18°C) at night and 72°-75°F (22°-24°C) during the day. They will show signs of stress if subjected to sudden changes in temperature, and they suffer if positioned next to a cold window. If the leaves tend to curl down, the temperature may be too low. If the leaves are mushy and there are few flowers, the temperature may be too high. Propagation: Individual leaves with a little bit of the stem still attached will root when placed on moist soil and kept around 75°-80°F (24°-26°C).
African violets are perhaps our favorite houseplants. Nothing else can thrive indoors and bloom month after month like the African violet. Their small size means you have lots of options where to put them, even on a narrow windowsill. Plastic pots are better than clay pots. African violets do best when a little pot-bound, but still should be repotted every year or two. Keep the pots small.
The African violet was first discovered in 1892 by Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Ilaire, in what is now Tanzania, but was then a German colony called German East Africa. They were first introduced to the public as house plants a couple decades later and it wasn't until the 1960s (when hardier and fancier hybrids became available) that African violets really became popular with indoor gardeners. Today there are thousands of cultivars, many volumes written, and hundreds of clubs for African violet enthusiasts.
African violets are not at all related to the true violets (family Violaceae), of which the common blue violet (Viola sororia) is a prime example, but are more closely aligned with the house plant, gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa), which also is included in the primarily tropical family, Gesneriaceae.
Steve Christman 2/8/11