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
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
s 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 Saintpaulia
s 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
don't seem to be unusually plagued by any pests in particular, though they should be watched for the usual suspects -- spider mites
, 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.9Botrytis
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.10FEEDING
: 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
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
s 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.