Saturday, August 23, 2008

Unfinished business: Dracaena deremensis 'Ulises' and 'Jumbo'

In the profile on Dracaena deremensis 'Warneckei,' I mentioned other varieties derived from 'Warneckei,' but didn't have pictures to go with most of them, or any personal experience with them.

So then on this last order, 'Ulises' and 'Jumbo' were both being offered to us. Not unusual to have the chance to buy 'Ulises:' I think it's the new 'Warneckei,' the one that makes money for people and is going to replace it eventually. But 'Jumbo' was new. So what the hell: I ordered them both.

And . . . well, I can tell them apart, but only barely. Can you?

Dracaena deremensis 'Jumbo.'

Dracaena deremensis 'Ulises.'

Which is which? (C'mon, guess. You've got at least a 50-50 chance of being right.) I'll post the answer in the comments.

So I think I probably overdid it. I like the 'Warneckei' types, but they're not strong enough sellers that we need 12 6-inch 'Jumbos,' 6 8-inch 'Ulises,' something like 8 4-inch 'Ulises' (I think: they weren't tagged), and about 30 4-inch somethings that were sold to us as 'Dragon Series' plants, which look more like 'Bausei' or my 'Jade Jewel' than anything. And that's just the ones that look like 'Warneckei.'

Also: if anybody dropped by and saw half of a comic, with something unintelligible about campaign signs, sorry. That was supposed to work, but apparently doesn't permit its comics to be shrunk to fit a blog. Or I did it wrong. Something. It wasn't incredibly funny anyway. More weird than funny.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Cult Leader (Saintpaulia ionantha cvv., Part II

If you got here by looking for care information for African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha cvv.), you want Part I of this post. This is the less-interesting, more technical Part II, in which I do my best to understand, and then explain to other people, some specialized African violet vocabulary, and partly fail (at least when it comes to variegation).


Bells are single (i.e., not double) flowers with a bell-shaped flower.
Chimera or pinwheel flowers have flowers of one color with a stripe of a contrasting color running the length of the petal (the petals are usually called lobes, for reasons which are unclear to me), down the center.
Doubles have more than one row of lobes. The "Dieffenbachia-leafed" plant I mentioned in Part I is a double, among other things.
Edged flowers have a thin line of a different color around the edge of the lobes. If the edge color is white, the flowers are called Geneva flowers. We seem to get a lot of Genevas in at work, and they do sell, but I don't personally find them all that interesting.

A NOID Geneva flower.

Fantasy blossoms are spotted or streaked with a second color, on top of the base color of the flower. The second color may be something entirely different, like yellow on pink, or it may be a different shade of the same color, like lavender on purple. Some of these are awesome in a way which is potentially very expensive for me.

A NOID fantasy flower.

Frilled flowers have lobes with very wavy or serrated edges. They can be doubled or single, or any color, including multicolor:

A NOID frilled flower.

Multicolor flowers contain two different colors, not in the same color family, like blue and white. (This is by contrast with Two-tone, q.v.)
A thumbprint-style flower (Thanks, Korina!).

Singles have five lobes; the lobes may be any color or combination of colors, they may be frilled or edged or whatever, but there are only five.
Stars have lobes which are all more or less the same size; the usual for Saintpaulia flowers is for the top two lobes to be small and the lowest three to be large. It seems to me like most African violets being sold are Stars, but admittedly I haven't been paying attention to that and I'm probably wrong.
Thumbprint flowers have one color at the flower's center and a contrasting color at the lobe tips (see above picture).
Two-tone flowers contain two shades of the same color, like lavender and purple.
Wasp flowers are singles with very thin lobes, or, according to some sites, singles in which two of the lobes have fused together into a tube. Wasp flowers usually go hand-in-hand with Compound leaves, see next section.


plants have leaves with smooth, rounded edges and no unusual texture to the leaf. The average grocery store Saintpaulia is a Boy. (also called Plain, Tailored, or Standard)
Compound leaves supposedly have three separate lobes to them, one large and two small. This is also sometimes called Wasp, Bustle, or Piggyback foliage. This might sound cool, but I couldn't find any pictures for the longest time, and then when I did find a picture, via alenka in the comments on Part I (alenka's link), it appears that the two small leaflets are actually on the underneath of the main one, meaning that although they're present, you can't really even see them unless you're holding the plant up above your head. And it's not like it looks especially pretty, either.
Girl plants usually have deeply scalloped leaves, with a lighter color marking at the leaf base.
Holly leaves are flexed in and out at the edges, giving them a series of points as well as a vague shape resemblance to holly leaves. Alenka's link also has a good shot of Holly leaves.
Pointed leaves come to a point, instead of being uniformly rounded or heart-shaped.
Quilted leaves have indented veins, and are often also Girls.
Spider leaves are narrow and pointed. Leaf edges may or may not be wavy. (also Longifolia) Some pictures, again, at alenka's link. I've never actually seen one of these in person: they sounded more interesting before I saw the pictures.
Spooned leaves curl up at the edges and have got to be an enormous pain to keep water off of. (also Ovate, Cupped) (Sometimes this indicates a cultural problem, and isn't actually part of the variety in question.)

A NOID with spooned (cupped) leaves.


(deep breath)

Crown-variegated leaves emerge from the center of the plant white, and turn greener as they age. It's also sometimes called Champion variegation.
Mosaic variegation, also called Lillian Jarrett variegation, is a pattern of mosaic-like splotches across the entire leaf surface. The variegated plant from the customer that rocked my world, pictured in Part I, is a Mosaic. (Also a Girl, a Medium Standard, and an Awesome. That last term is my own personal, kinda useless, contribution to the vocabulary, but I feel it needs to be said whenever I bring up the customer's plant.) Alenka, commenting at Part I, brought us a photo gallery that shows a leaf looking a lot like the "Dieffenbachia" plant but describes it as a mosaic. Which I suspect is what it probably is, though I had not been aware, previously, that mosaics could be blotchy on only part of the leaf like this.
Nancy Reagan variegation is described here as a variegated leaf where the lighter color is mainly in the center of the leaves. The "Dieffenbachia" plant of mine might be a Nancy Reagan type, aaaand it might not: if a leaf is light in the middle but also speckled, is it a Nancy Reagan or a Mosaic? Or is "Harmony's Little Stinker," possibly, a Nancy Reagan?
Tommie Lou variegation is when the leaf edge is a different color from the rest of the leaf; the color is usually speckled, though I've seen varieties that had a thin white edge running around the leaf, with very little white and no speckling. This might have been cultural (a plant grown in warm conditions might develop without much white or pink at the edge), or it might have been part of the plant normally. Tommie Lou variegation seems, in my amateur estimation, to be the most common type. The plant I got from Lowes appears to be a Tommie Lou, though I'd hoped for a Lillian Jarrett. Some good pictures, which demonstrate pretty clearly what a Tommie Lou is, are, again, at alenka's link.


Micro-miniatures are the smallest plants, with a mature size of two inches in diameter or less. They're usually grown in a 1-inch pot.
Super-miniatures have a mature diameter of 3-4 inches, and are usually grown in a 1-inch pot.
Miniatures are 4-6 inches in diameter, and are usually grown in a 2-inch pot.
Compacts are 6-8 inches in diameter, usually in a 3-inch pot.
Standard is the designation which covers all the plants that are 8 or more inches in diameter, but it's divided into small, medium and large. These are all usually grown in 4-inch pots.
Standard Small is 8-10 inches in diameter.
Standard Medium is 10-14 inches in diameter.
Standard Large is 14-16 inches in diameter.
I am unclear whether these are "official" measurements or just the guesses of one particular person: one assumes that there must be size standards for African violet shows, but I couldn't find any at the AVSA, and not all of these terms are used by all sites.
(see comments for more re: sizes)

Anyway. If you've made it this far, you must really like African violets. And if you really like African violets, then you're probably wondering if I intend to get to the stuff I said about there being a gazillion African violet societies. Well you're in luck: I do.

This is actually more just a representative sampling of AV groups: an exhaustive list would be, well, exhausting, considering that Google registers, it says, 154,000 hits for "African violet society." This is only the first five pages, more or less, from Google.

A NOID edged, non-Geneva flower.

I make no promises about these groups being currently active, much less composed of more than one person, or containing people you might want to talk to or be friends with. In fact, some of them are probably domineering jerks who will hate you for no good reason. (If none of them are like this, then the domineering jerk is probably you: be careful.) But it's a place to start. And whatever you do, don't agree to take any "free personality tests" or drink any Kool-Aid: down that road leads tragedy.

African Violet Society of America (U.S.: this is apparently the parent group. A lot of the smaller groups identify themselves as being affiliated with the AVSA on their webpages)
Dixie African Violet Society (Southern U.S.)
Mid-Atlantic African Violet Society (East Central U.S.)
London African Violet Society (London, Ontario, Canada)
Oakville African Violet Society (Oakville, Ontario, Canada)
African Violet Society of Canada (Canada)
Upper Pinellas African Violet Society (Pinellas County, Florida?)
Swedish African Violet Society (or Svenska Saintpauliasällskapet, as its members presumably call it; Sweden)
Old Dominion African Violet Society (Maryland, Virginia, District of Columbia, U.S.)
Quad Cities African Violet Society (Quad Cities, IL/IA? Also somehow Missouri?)
Bay State African Violet Society (Massachusetts, U.S.)
Heart of Jacksonville African Violet Society (Jacksonville, Florida, U.S.)
The African Violet Society of Rochester NY (Rochester, New York, U.S.)
New York State African Violet Society (New York, U.S.)
Portland African Violet Society (Portland, Oregon, U.S.)
Hoosier African Violet Society (Indiana, U.S.)
African Violet Society of Oklahoma City (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S.)
Reno Sparks African Violet Society (Reno, Nevada, U.S.)
Windsor African Violet Society (Windsor, Connecticut, U.S.)
Missouri Valley African Violet Council (Central U.S.)
Richmond African Violet Society (Richmond, Virginia, U.S.)
Columbus African Violet Society (Columbus, Ohio, U.S.)
First Austin African Violet Society (Austin, Texas, U.S.)
First Halifax African Violet Society (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada)
African Violet Society of Greater Tulsa (Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.)
Tucson African Violet Society (Tucson, Arizona, U.S.)
Illinois African Violet Society (Illinois, U.S.)
Finnish Saintpaulia Society (Finland)

I encourage readers to surreptitiously collect statistics on what proportion of the membership of these groups fits the Little Old Lady demographic and report back to me.

If all else fails, you can always check out the Garden Web African Violet Forum; there's certain to be somebody on there who knows a guy whose wife's sister is the neighbor of somebody who's second cousins with a collector in your area. Or if you're in the U.S., you could always try e-mailing the AVSA and see if they know of any AVSA-affiliated groups in your area.


Photo credits: All photos for this post were from Tracy at dAmN pLaNtS, because, frankly, she's got a much more varied collection than I have at my home or at work combined.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pretty pictures: Pink and Purple

Anemone tomentosa 'Robustissima.' I have to say, I'm not sure these could really be called "robust:" they've barely held it together and are only now, this late in the summer, being remotely interesting.

Monarda sp. From the Kent State Park trip, whence I also got a lot of the Yellow pictures, and the Park NOID pictures. (Also the carrion beetle larvae pictures, though those had less universal appeal, it turned out.)

Monarda sp. again. As befits the common name (bee-balm), the bees really were fond of these.

Asclepias incarnata, swamp milkweed, is my guess, though I'm not an Asclepias expert and don't anticipate becoming an Asclepias expert in the future.

Another shot of the Asclepias. I think the main reason I like these -- and I do like them, very much -- is because they remind me of Hoyas.

Pelargonium x hortorum 'Americana Violet." Possibly got the color cranked too high on this one, but in person, you know, they're pretty bright. It's kind of realistic.

Pelargonium x hortorum 'Strawberry Sizzle.' I liked this variety a lot, but the customers . . . not so much. Stupid customers.

Circium arvense? It's a thistle of some kind, but I don't know which. Not a thistle expert either. By the way, this reminds me of something. I've been told that "Hyacinths and Thistles" is something sadistic speech therapists try to get lispy kids to say. It's fun to try. It's also, incidentally, the title for an album by The Sixths. Which is how I found out about the speech therapist thing. One feels bad for the college station DJ who had to talk about "the new album from The Sixths, 'Hyacinths and Thistles.'

Good album, though, incidentally. The fifth track, "Just Like a Movie Star," is sort of an important song to the husband and I. Not "our song" (that's probably the Cowboy Junkies cover of "Sweet Jane"), but one of "our other songs."

The Sixths' other album is "Wasp's Nests," which is clearly titled the way it is for the same reasons as "Hyacinths and Thistles."

Catharanthus roseus 'Pacifica Lilac.' This is an old, old picture, from before the spider mites overran all the Catharanthus (no I will not call it "Vinca:" it's not Vinca.). Pretty, but so not worth the trouble. I've sort of had a grudge against Catharanthus since the mid-80s: I was sort of forced to plant some when in junior high, at a tiny Christian school in Alamo, TX, long ago, and I wasn't happy about it. Calling it "P.E." doesn't make it any less slave labor.

Pardancanda 'Sangria.' Similar to the Belamcanda chinensis, presumably related but I haven't investigated this. I liked the Belamcanda a lot better, initially, but I've warmed up to the Pardancanda. This is a nice color.

More Pardancanda 'Sangria.'

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Work-related: Bromeliad display

I spent all day yesterday scrambling, trying to get everything watered so I could get back to the real work of bringing the new stuff out of the back room where it's being stored. I got a couple hours at the beginning of the shift, and not quite a full hour at the end, and that was it. It was kind of horrible, and it was definitely hot.

But when it was all over with, there was a bromeliad / Dracaena display I liked. So.

And then I came home and tried frantically to get everything watered so that when my next day off arrives (Thursday), I'll be able to do something with it besides watering plants. It's not going well. One of my plants decided it couldn't wait and threw itself off a table. (Seriously. It was my big Dieffenbachia 'Tropic Rain,' which when it gets dry enough goes kind of limp. It's also very top-heavy, even when properly watered, so when it starts to lean over from being dry, it ends up throwing itself off the table. This has happened twice now. I don't know how it is that it always leans to the edge of the table, as opposed to leaning in toward the center: I've been putting it back so it leans west; it just keeps falling off east. It's just an east-leaning Dieffenbachia, I guess.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pretty picture: Aechmea fasciata flower

Aechmea fasciata

Kind of pressed for time: I spent all day yesterday moving plants around, most of them plants that had apparently just been drenched before they were loaded on the truck, and which were still wet and heavy, and I was too exhausted to put much into this post. Not that the picture's not still pretty, as advertised.

I've also already bought a few of the new plants, which puts me up at 400 plants total, now, again: I'm re-trying a Podocarpus macrophyllus (the previous one got too dry and wouldn't come back for me), plus I got a Homalomena1 'Selby' and a bird's-nest Anthurium which was sold to us as A. hookerii but probably isn't. (For one thing, it's apparently hookeri, not hookerIi, and for another, apparently actual A. hookeri is rarely if ever sold. A. hookeri is apparently the name one gives to any old random hybrid bird's-nest type Anthurium one's trying to sell, which would be fine if it weren't also an actual name for an actual species.) The point of saying all of this being that I don't know what I have, but it's an Anthurium and it seems cool and there will, no doubt, be photos relatively soon.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Cult Leader (Saintpaulia ionantha cvv.), Part I

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).

Assorted plants from work.

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.

Customer's plant.

The Lowes variegated plant. Since divided.

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.

The "Dieffenbachia" Saintpaulia.

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.

Spots on leaves, from a work plant. *sigh* We're trying to do better, but the water comes out cold, and there's only so much you can do sometimes.

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.

Assorted plants from work.

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.

Suckers. Photo from dAmN pLaNtS.

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'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.

One of two plants that got their start underneath the African violet table at work.

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.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


In a recent post, I noted that we were anticipating the arrival of a Euphorbia drewpifera in our next tropical shipment. The correct spelling of the species name is drupifera.

In a much earlier post, in February, I posted a picture of a plant in bloom which I identified as a Monadenium stapelioides. The correct identification for the plant in question is Euphorbia drupifera.

PATSP regrets the errors.

Monadenium stapelioides Euphorbia drupifera

Random plant event: return of the liverworts

Another picture of "blooming" liverworts, but this time it's the boys' turn. The earlier post was a picture of the female gametophytes, which look like tiny little palm trees; these are the males. Which also look like tiny little trees, but it's harder to see them as any particular type of tree. They're more like a little kid's drawing of a tree: trunk plus round bumpy thing on top.

(I recommend opening the picture in a new window.)

I know my sympathies are actually supposed to lie with the perennials, the pots' rightful owners. And maybe they would be, if the perennials were taking better care of themselves. I mean, I know it's kind of my job to take care of them, but . . . well, with some of them, I get the feeling that they're not interested in meeting me halfway, even. The liverworts, at least, are always green, pretty much take care of themselves, don't mind being overwatered, and use the space that the perennials don't want. What's not to love?

I don't know if it'd be possible to try to grow some indoors or not: maybe in a terrarium? My last terrarium attempt (with tropical plants) didn't work so well. Light and air circulation might be important. And maybe they have to have a winter dormancy? I suppose I won't know unless I try. I'll see what I can do.