The world’s most popular, unfashionable houseplant
African violets look perfectly pretty to me, and there are so many bonuses: they’re compact, they don’t need potting every five minutes, and they take very little care to bloom well. They continue to bloom with next to no effort… and bloom and bloom! Even brown thumbs might be persuaded.
What’s curious is why African violets fell out of fashion. Garden magazines don’t seem to wax lyrical about them anymore. You don’t see them at garden shows.
Yet they remain one of the most popular houseplants in the world. In New Zealand, Knights Nurseries sells around 25,000 African violets each year and expects that figure to double over the next 5-6 years. In the USA, the figure is 100 million.
Surely they’d be a hit at a farmers’
market? Especially the more unusual varieties that only collectors have, presented in contemporary form, like Japanese moss balls (kokedama) or inserted in hip pyramidal hanging terrariums. Nb: this doesn’t include those under licensed agreement, for example the Optimara varieties that you see in garden centres.
When I tried to join an African violet society, I was on the hunt for a variegated form that I’d been after for a while. It was one I fell in love with while visiting my aunt’s place in Australia a few years back. But even the great Google struggled to find a New Zealand group.
There turned out to be just one possibility. But when I fired off an email to enquire about it, former member Biddy Hair told me that it had gone into recess a few years ago. However, she gave me the names of two African violet enthusiasts who might be able to help me track down the variegated form.
“I have been growing African violets for many years now and have some with variegated leaves which you have shown an interest in,” says Betty Endicott. But Betty lives in Tauranga (I’m in Auckland), so she put me onto Bruce Andrew, another AV enthusiast who lives in Auckland. He kindly allowed me to raid his plants for leaf cuttings to start my own collection.
My violets are coming along nicely. Thanks to Biddy, Betty and Bruce’s expert advice, I now know how to grow these plant troopers the right way. While it’s true that anyone can grow an AV, if you want prolific blooms and a thriving propagation nursery, this kind of expert help is invaluable.
Betty’s collection totals around 250 plants, with 150-plus named varieties. “Remember, these plants enjoy the temperature that you and I like. If you feel cold or hot, so do they. Temperatures should be between 15°C and 25°C – slightly above or below 20°C is ideal. Lounges are usually suitable, with carpet and window drapes, but ensure there is light. During winter a suitable place on top of your fridge is fine, if there is enough light.”
What’s enough light?
“Window ledges are suitable,” says Betty. “But plants should not be close to the glass, which becomes cold at night. Sun, through glass, during the day can burn leaves. South-facing windows work well. As the plants tend to face the light, you will need to slightly turn them often to keep them symmetrical.”
African violets even have a favourite type of window dressing.
“Sheer, flimsy, nylon-type curtains reflect light. Plants are usually happy with this type of curtain between them and the window. Venetian blinds slightly tilted allowing shafts of light are most suitable.”
African violets do not enjoy stuffy rooms. If you go off to work and shut up the house, you need to make sure the plants are kept where there is air movement. But like most other indoor plants, they don’t like cold, strong draughts either.
When I took my leaf cuttings from Bruce’s plants, he advised me to put the stems in water. It’s a very easy propagating method: • place a piece of tinfoil over the top of a container filled with water; • make slits in the top; • insert your leaf cuttings.
This allows the stems to reach the water but keeps the leaves above it. Place the container in a warm spot but out of direct sunlight. Once a few roots have grown ( just a few small roots, don’t leave them to fill out or you may get weak plants), they can be potted up.
The two things that kill most African violet in pots is the wrong soil, and too much water.
Choose your pot carefully
“Do not over or under-pot,” says Betty. “African violets prefer to be slightly root-bound. And roots tend to grow out rather than down, so shallow pots work best.
“A rule of thumb – think one third. That is, the pot width should be one-third the size (width) of the plant. A plant with a leaf span of 15cm would be best in a pot 5cm in diameter. A large plant measuring 30cm would have a 10cm pot.”
The depth of the pot is important too
“None of my fully-grown plants measure more than 7.5cm. Imagine a small plant in a deep and wide pot (over-potted) which has more soil than is needed – all the soil becomes wet when watered. There is so much extra water for the small plant to absorb, it cannot cope with it.”
Soil is your next consideration. It must be porous as African violets need air around their roots and a lack of it is the most common reason people kill their plants.
“Do not press the soil firmly around the plant – they need air spaces for their roots.”