Home­grown Hand­made

The world’s most pop­u­lar, un­fash­ion­able house­plant

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - Words Jane Wrig­glesworth

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.”

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