I've dreaded writing this profile since it occurred to me that I would have to. The last profile to make me this anxious was Hoya carnosa, and for similar reasons: Saintpaulia ionantha cvv. have sort of particular requirements, a huge and rabidly loyal fan club (a number of them, in fact), and no matter what I say about them, some of it is probably going to wind up being wrong to somebody. I don't mind reading through information that's already on-line, I just don't want to have to spend weeks doing it (though of course I spent weeks doing it anyway).
But beyond that, there's also the problem of me tending to buy the plants I'm writing about. It hasn't happened much lately -- I think the last serious case was with Dieffenbachia -- but it's happened enough to leave me a little concerned. I can't afford to try to buy all the African violet cultivars I see. I'll actually never be able to -- there are literally thousands of named varieties.1 (We did get a new batch of tropicals in yesterday from Florida, and among them were a box of unusual Saintpaulia varieties. So the danger is pretty real.)
Part of the reason why there are so many is that the genus2 is just variable. Some plants are just like this (variability was kind of the whole point of the Syngonium podophyllum profile, for example). It's also apparently not impossible to cross species within the genus, leading to interspecific hybrids with all sorts of exciting qualities. That said, the average African violet is about six to eight inches across, sold in a four-inch pot, and has fuzzy, round, solid-green leaves at the end of a thick petiole and a solid blue or blue-purple bloom with five petals and a yellow center. However, because of all the hybridizing and mutating and sporting and so forth, there are varieties available which are much larger or smaller, varieties with ruffle-edged leaves or compound leaves, varieties with white-rimmed leaves or splotchy green-on-pink-on white variegation, varieties with burgundy, lavender, white, striped, or white-edged flowers, doubled (or more) flowers, flowers with fused petals, and most of the possible combinations of the above. Whatever you want. (Like penguins, African violets are sensitive to people's needs.) The specific names for some of these types will be covered in Part II.
Saintpaulia spp. are all, like Zamioculcas zamiifolia, native to Tanzania in particular, and East Africa in general.
I myself started out with a very run-of-the-mill one: back in November 2007, we had a batch come in at work that looked really good. I'd never been a big fan: I associate them with doilies, weak tea, porcelain figurines, heavy curtains, fancy soaps carved into whimsical shapes that you'll get yelled at if you try to use -- little old ladies, basically. Which, it's not like there's anything wrong with being a little old lady. Some of my favorite people have, historically, been little old ladies.3 It's just that I don't really see myself as one, or aspire to, so it was hard to care about the kind of plants that they care about. For which I hope I can be forgiven.
And beyond the geriatric associations, I also was under the impression that African violets are difficult. But when I saw this batch of plants back in November, I thought, well, the flowers are a really pretty color on this one plant (a deep, apparently unphotographable blue-purple4). And people seem to like them so much: maybe I should find out why. And so I bought it, brought it home, and we've been getting acquainted. And this went . . . okay. We had some arguments at first, mostly because I was trying to keep it too dry, I think, but it lived long enough for us to come to an understanding.
And that would probably have been that, except that a customer brought in a Saintpaulia to be repotted in mid-December, a plant which absolutely blew my mind, and which I wrote a post about for the blog. I had no idea. I'd never seen anything like this before. So then I had to have one of these variegated ones.5 However, they were nowhere to be found, so I pretty well gave up, and then this past March, boom, I found one on the half-off rack at Lowes, of all places. It didn't have many leaves, but it did have some, and it isn't precisely the same variegation as the customer's was, but it was cheap and variegated, so I bought it, and it's done really crazily well for me here. Divided it already and everything (it's nice when they act grateful). So yay me.
Then there was a third plant, that I got in June from a batch of African violets we got at work, mostly purchased because its leaves remind me of Dieffenbachia leaves. I have yet to see a name for this kind of variegation (though wait for Part II: I have a guess), but it's very nice. The flowers are some weird pink doubled thing I'm not crazy about, but I let them stay when they appear because it's not like they're hurting anything.
So I don't think I'm part of the Saintpaulia Brotherhood just yet, but still: after dividing the pink variegated one, and the blue-violet one, I now have eight plants, which likely counts as more than just dabbling.
The good thing about there being so many people into African violets is that it's very easy to find care information. The bad part is that it's also very easy to find care information that's so detailed and so specific that one can come away with the impression that you're better off not to try. The Basic Care page at the African Violet Society of America (henceforth AVSA), for example, starts going off into talk about de-nitrification, wick watering, foot-candles,6 nematodes, florigen, and so on and so forth: this is all real and useful information, granted, and has its place, but overwhelming for a beginner. If you're just starting out, you don't really need to know that you're supposed to replace your fluorescent grow lights three months before the plants are to be entered in African violet shows. And if you're looking for that kind of information, you probably really should go to the AVSA and look, not here. What follows are the basic care instructions, which should be sufficient to maintain a few plants on. If you decide to shave your head and wear the fuzzy purple robes of the Saintpaulia Brotherhood, you'll want something more detailed, in which case I refer you to your local African violet society, whichever one that might be (see part II, which is to be posted on Friday, and which I'll warn you right now is going to be a bit dull.).
The basics are definitely different than those for the typical houseplant, some aspects more so than others:
LIGHT: Every single site out there says either east window / morning sun, or artificial light which is located a very specific distance above the plants.7 There does not appear to be any room for negotiation on this, as far as the serious Saintpaulia-growing community is concerned.
WATER: Saintpaulias are usually watered from below. The plant is set on a saucer containing water, the saucer is filled, and the plant takes up the water for whatever period of time and then the excess is dumped. There are also special pots marketed for African violets that are basically a pot-within-a-pot design: the outer pot is nonporous and holds water; the inner pot contains the plant and has a water-permeable clay wall, which allows water to move from the reservoir between pots into the soil in the inner pot. This is not because Saintpaulias have some special need for being watered from below, but because the leaves will get unsightly-looking spots if cold water stands on them for any length of time, and it's basically impossible to water a plant from overhead without getting some water on the leaves. If you're using warm enough water (basically room temperature to slightly warmer) and watering is being done in a warmish room, you could still probably water your plant with a watering can, from overhead. But watering from below isn't a big hassle either, particularly, so do what you like.
Though African violets are supposed to be sort of picky about when they get watered, I haven't really found that to be the case at work or at home. Overwatering is potentially a problem, because overwatered plants can get crown rot (see PESTS) or mildew (ditto); underwatering, provided it's not too terribly extreme, is usually not going to be fatal though it will make the plant look like crap. Both over- and underwatered plants can become limp; underwatered plants will perk back up again once they get water, but overwatered plants are usually limp because parts of them are rotting off, and they aren't going to perk back up.
The basic rule for watering is to water consistently, when the soil has dried out somewhat. You don't want soil to get bone-dry between watering, but the top half-inch to inch of soil should be dry. Try not to let plants get so dry that they wilt, too. Under no circumstances should you keep the plant standing in water for long periods (which can be a danger of the special African-violet pots: an overfull reservoir can kill a plant very quickly).
African violets are one of those plants that people seem to be able to water on a schedule, without adverse effects. This isn't something I recommend myself, but in this one case, as long as the plant seems to be growing well for you, you may as well go for it. Just don't let it reach the point where you're telling the plant that it's Tuesday, so it must need water: the calendar should never be more important than the plant's actual needs. Still, regularity and consistency can work wonders.
Some growers use a wick-watering system, similar to the double-pot method I mentioned before, except that instead of the water in the reservior being directly in contact with the porous inner pot, the water in the reservoir is in contact with a piece of cotton or nylon, which is threaded through a hole in the bottom of the inner pot. This doesn't really have any particular advantages or disadvantages over other watering-from-below methods, as far as I'm aware.
TEMPERATURE: There's a fairly narrow range of temperatures where Saintpaulia do well, roughly 60-80ºF (16-27ºC). If they are too cold, they will all but stop growing, the new growth will be smaller and fuzzier than the older growth, and variegated varieties will become much less green, with thicker, whiter, more brittle foliage. Cold temperatures may also, under humid conditions, cause dew to condense on the leaf edges, which can lead to leaf spotting.
Plants which are too hot, on the other hand, tend to lose variegation, and produce small or sparse flowers, which may not open fully (this is particularly an issue with doubled or frilly flowers). Cold seems to be a bigger problem than heat, all other things being equal.
HUMIDITY: African violets are said to do best in humid environments, to the point that some people advocate growing them only in terrariums or fishbowls. I think this is probably a little excessive for most people: my plants grow just fine without me going out of my way to add humidity.8 Your results may vary.
PESTS: Saintpaulia don't seem to be unusually plagued by any pests in particular, though they should be watched for the usual suspects -- spider mites, mealybugs, scale, whitefly, thrips, aphids, and fungus gnats -- plus cyclamen mites and maybe one or two exotic others. As far as I can tell, if your plant is doing something abnormal and unattractive, the cause is more likely to be something you're doing wrong culturally, rather than bugs, but nothing can be ruled out until the plant's been thoroughly checked over.
Mildew, though not a pest, exactly, is a common enough disease for African violets, and looks like whitish-gray powder on leaves and (especially) blooms. It usually indicates that the air around the plant is too moist and/or stagnant. There are mildewicides out there, I'm fairly certain, but the better action is to change the growing conditions so the mildew doesn't want to grow there anymore. We had a pretty bad mildew situation in the greenhouse this spring, at least some of which was because the African violet table was under some hanging baskets, making it impossible to water the hanging baskets without getting the African violets wet.9
Botrytis is a form of rot that also affects African violets pretty regularly; it's also gray, like mildew, but Botrytis usually looks like small gray hairs growing out of a leaf or flower, as opposed to gray powder that's been spilled on a leaf or flower. Botrytis is particularly fond of dead plant material which is resting on the soil, so keeping your plants well-groomed can go a long way toward keeping it under control.
Crown rot is also caused by a fungus, and like mildew and Botrytis, indicates that your plant is being kept too wet. If a plant starts to wilt like it's dry, but the soil is actually wet, suspect crown rot. The best way to deal with crown rot is to try to propagate from unaffected pieces of the plant and water more carefully next time.
GROOMING: Removing spent leaves and flowers as they appear will help reduce the chances of fungal attack. One will also probably wind up needing a small, fine brush, for brushing dirt off of the fuzzy leaves (If one is careful about water temperature, it's also possible to gently hand-wash leaves in a sink with a mild detergent, but brushing dirt off works as well and is a little less likely to break leaves off). And of course you have to either remove suckers as they appear (see PROPAGATION) or divide the plants regularly.
All watering-from-below methods will eventually lead to accumulation of mineral deposits (and unused fertilizer, etc.) on the soil surface, which is unattractive and may contribute to the development of crown rot. Regular flushing of the soil, or repotting, will keep mineral buildup under control.
As plants age, they develop long stems (sometimes "necks" or "goose necks"), which doesn't pose big cultural issues for the plant (as far as I could find), but which people just think look ugly, and which can lead to plants jiggling around in their pots and breaking leaves off. For this reason, the usual recommendation is to repot your plant every six months or so: this would be way too often with most other plants, but African violets are, like I've been saying, not like most other plants. Goosenecked plants can be reburied, though the process carries some risk: the usual procedure appears to be, 1) cut off a small amount of the bottom of the root ball, 2) repot the plant, burying the long neck under fresh soil, and 3) cover the plant with a baggie instead of watering until enough time has passed for roots to develop.10
FEEDING: Special fertilizer formulas developed specifically for African violets do exist, though as far as I can tell this has more to do with marketing than necessity or science. A formula with equal percentages of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, like a 7-7-7 or 20-20-20, should work just fine. Plants may be fed year-round. Follow the directions on the package for how much to fertilize; if you're adding food to a reservoir-type pot, the recommendation I came across was to halve the amount the manufacturer says to use; I'm not clear about why. Variegated plants also need less fertilizer than a similarly-sized green-leaf plant, and are quicker to show damage from getting too much fertilizer (usually in the form of burnt leaf edges), so adjust dosage accordingly for them.
PROPAGATION: Saintpaulia will sprout new crowns from various spots on the stem; these new crowns are called "suckers" and can be cut off and planted on their own, where they will root and produce new plants. Suckers, though useful for propagation, are considered kind of annoying by the hardcore growers, because their appearance can ruin a plant's symmetry11 if not detected and removed quickly. The usual recommendation for rooting suckers is to plant them in moist soil and cover the plant with a baggie, not watering for real until the sucker has clearly rooted. I'm experimenting with thumbing my nose at the experts and just sticking the suckers from my blue-purple-flowered plant into soil and proceeding as normal: this actually seems to be working fine so far, though I wouldn't be as cavalier about it if the plant in question had been with me for a long time, or had been very expensive, or etc.
Plants can also be grown from single leaves, in a way similar to how some Peperomias and Begonias can be grown from single leaves: one just cuts off, or snaps off, a medium-sized leaf,12 and plants it in a light, porous medium like perlite or vermiculite, which is then kept moist. The cutting may be placed in a baggie to increase humidity, as well. Leaf cuttings can also be started in water: the roots which form are adapted to water, however, and are somewhat disadvantaged if the plant is transferred to soil. Which is not to say they can't be transferred. Leaf cuttings will carry on the variegation pattern of their parent, even if the particular leaf being propagated is all or mostly green, though certain types of flowers (the "chimera" or "pinwheel" types, specifically; there may be others) will not reproduce true from leaves and have to be reproduced through suckers.
Leaf cuttings may be reused, if the parent leaf is still intact after the first round: a leaf with a long petiole can be rooted, cut off, rooted, cut off, rooted, etc., many many times, if you're patient enough. A co-worker has claimed to me that his mother once got twenty-six plants off of a single leaf by this method, a claim which, considering the source, is just barely this side of believable.13
An awful lot of the cultural information has been extrapolated from robsviolet.com's marvelously detailed FAQ. They sell a variety of plants, not just Saintpaulia, as well as supplies, plus there's a completely ridiculous amount of Saintpaulia porn to be drooled at, if you're not actually looking to buy right now. I haven't ordered from them, so I'm not exactly endorsing them, but anybody with a 13-page FAQ is somebody who clearly likes what they're writing about: they do have the look of trustworthiness. And they say they'll deliver to anybody, anywhere in the world.
I know: get thee behind me, Mr. Subjunctive. But still. It's a useful-looking site. Not that there aren't a lot of those, but still.
As for specific types of Saintpaulia, there are lots of specialized terms for specific types of flowers, variegation, leaf shape, plant size, etc., which I will get to, along with some names and websites for African violet societies, in Part II, on Friday.
Photo credits: All mine except the suckers photo, which belongs to Tracy at dAmN pLaNtS. It occurs to me that the last time I had to borrow pictures from Tracy was the other profile I really dreaded writing, Hoya carnosa. This is neither here nor there, really, but it's interesting. Or maybe it isn't. I'm really not sure.
1 Precise numbers are, as you might imagine, difficult to come by. I saw one claim of 2000, and another of 20,000, and presumably the actual number is somewhere in that range somewhere. But that's still a pretty fucking big range. I mean, you would think that somebody would notice 18,000 African violets just sitting around on a table somewhere. Even a list of 18,000 African violet names would have a bit of heft to it. Maybe somebody authoritative inserted or dropped a zero at some point?
2 I say genus rather than species because although most plants sold as African violets are some version or another of Saintpaulia ionantha, there has been some crossbreeding with the other species in the Saintpaulia genus. Wikiposedly, there are only five other Saintpaulia species (inconspicua, goetzeana, pusilla, shumensis, teitensis), but one of the sites I ran across said there were a good twenty other species (which were not identified, though). Wikipedia says that there used to be another twenty species, in addition to the six it acknowledges, but says the lost twenty were all reclassified as subspecies of ionantha recently and don't count anymore. So clearly, between the confusion about how many named varieties there are and the confusion about how many species there are, we can see that: becoming an African violet collector will erode your ability to count. Don't say you weren't warned.
3 In the interest of fairness, I should note that some of my least favorite people have also been little old ladies. I could tell you grocery store cashiering stories. . . .
4 This is a known issue with Saintpaulia: certain shades of purple just don't photograph properly, and one has to resort to the dreaded fakery of Photoshop in order to make the blooms the "right" color. Occasionally, one has to be reminded that the light detectors in cameras are not the same as the light detectors in one's retina, and although retinas can be very well approximated most of the time, there's no substitute for the real thing.
5 I'd tried to grow new plants from a couple leaves of the customer's plant: the crowns were close together and the petioles were long, so when the plant was divided, a lot of leaves broke off (and by "a lot" I mean maybe ten to fifteen). I kept three of those, and put the rest in a glass of water for the customer in case she'd want to propagate some for herself (though judging by the look I got when I told her I'd saved leaves, I suspect she didn't), and we tried growing new plants from the three, but they rotted almost immediately, alas. It turns out that instead of preparing a pot for them and laying them carefully in the pot at just the right angle, I should have just flung them any old place under one of the tables and forgotten about them for a few months: we've had multiple African violet leaves fall under a table by accident and sprout. Life is not fair.
6 No, foot-candles are not like ear candles. Though that generates amusing mental images.
7 It'll actually depend a little bit on the size and kind of light you're using, but about 18 inches above the plants seems to be about standard.
8 Though I have to qualify this by saying that my apartment is not humidity-typical, because I have so many plants in here already, packed tightly enough together, that they all raise the humidity for one another. Still, though: the humidity requirements don't seem to me like they're so extreme as to be unreachable, either.
9 To answer the obvious question: we didn't move the hanging baskets or African violets because it was spring and the greenhouses were full of annuals packed cheek to jowl. No place to move anything to. Stuff did get rearranged when the opportunity arose.
10 The reason for the baggie thing is, repotting damages the fine roots, and damaged roots are both more prone to rotting and less able to take up moisture. So if you try to water the plant like normal, the roots won't be able to take up the water and then they'll rot, and you'll lose the plant. Using the baggie keeps the plant from losing as much water in the first place, so you shouldn't have to water, and this will (in theory) give the plant enough time to grow new roots.
11 Your more devoted African violet growers are veeeeeeeeery into symmetry.
12 It's very Goldilocks: the oldest, biggest leaves are too old, the youngest, smallest leaves are too undeveloped, but the middle tier of leaves are just right. Some people even go so far as to prescribe specific rows of leaves to use for propagation (typically the third row from the center), which confuses me a little: it's not like the leaves are arranged in tiers like an Araucaria heterophylla or something: how do you know when you've got the third row?
13 The same co-worker also recently told me about this guy he knew twenty or thirty years ago who was all totally psychic, for reals and shit, and who went to a party and knew that someone there was going to die in a car accident, which they did the next day, and he also knew that he had lung cancer, which when he went to the doctor and they did an x-ray and the x-ray didn't show any tumors, he insisted that they do another x-ray, and then they found a tumor, at which point the guy was apparently all, okay, well, thanks then, gonna go die now, and then he died a few months later or something.
The explanation for how he developed this literally unbelievable ability was, his mother was very hot and cold on him, the sort of slightly damaged mother who calls you over for a hug and then pushes you away in disgust, or tells you to quit doing homework and go play with your friends and then yells at you for being out playing instead of doing homework. The psychic ability was alleged to be a compensatory coping mechanism for dealing with his mother, which enabled Psychic Guy to suss out what Mom really wanted.
I was not impressed by the story, which lack of impressment seemed to be pissing Co-Worker off as he was telling it, but come on -- 1) if psychic abilities could develop from being around people who run hot and cold, who among us wouldn't be psychic? 2) it strikes me as being a lot more likely that a younger and more gullible Co-Worker swallowed a tall tale from a guy he admired thirty years ago than that there exist people who know the future; 3) none of the details of the story were independently verified by Co-Worker or, apparently, anybody else -- nobody called the doctor to check the story, nobody asked other people who'd been at the party if they'd heard Psychic Man make this claim before the fact, etc. I mean, I can claim to have predicted all kinds of stuff if you don't insist on the prediction happening before the event; 4) a teenager with this ability would have to be impossibly good and pure to avoid abusing it -- at the very least, this guy would have had to have been noticeably the luckiest motherfucker anybody in school had ever known, but he instead devoted his life to being good and not abusing his considerable abilities, which is just really not human nature at all. A real psychic would have become a bona fide cult leader by the age of twenty. For the chicks. 5) What use is going to see a doctor to confirm you have lung cancer, if you already know you have lung cancer? According to the story, the guy didn't even seek treatment for it. 6) The idea that the guy's mother, assuming that she actually did the sort of thing that the story claims she did, actually wanted the kid to come or go or play or study or whatever, strikes me as being kinda bullshit. A person who would send a child off to go play and then yell at him later because he's not studying isn't yelling because she wants the kid to study, she's yelling at the kid because she wants to yell at the kid, and will grasp at any excuse to do so. The idea that there was anything she actually wanted from him, that psychic abilities would have helped him to determine, makes little sense if you think about it. I mean, please.
Windmills do not work this way.
So all in all, I believe in pathological liars and gullible people a lot more than I believe in psychics, because I've met pathological liars (a few) and gullible people (a lot) before and am still waiting to meet my first psychic. Occam's Razor shaves again. This all sort of calls into question the twenty-six Saintpaulias story too, though given a long enough petiole, I can actually see how that might happen, and I don't have to break all the rules of science in order to find it plausible, so I'm okay with reporting it as fact still. Just kind of an iffy fact.