African Violets are one of America’s favorite house plants. What are the secrets of their continued popularity? They can be grown in a small apartment; they flourish in well lighted window gardens, under artificial light, in a terrarium or greenhouse; they’re easily propagated and they make wonderful hobby plants.
There are thousands of varieties. African violets (saintpaulias) come in pure white, near gray, purple, blue, wine and pink. They may be solid colors, splashed or striped with other colors, or edged in deeper or lighter tones. There are smooth and frilled petals, double and single flowers. Leaves range from oval to deeply waved and scalloped, cupped, spooned, pointed and quilted. They may be plain green, green with red undersides or variegated. There are miniatures, middle-sized and large ones.
The first species grown in this country was plain leaved blue-flowered Saintpaulia ionantha. The first hybrid form was “Blue Boy” with plain leaves and good sized blue-purple flowers. Then came pink, white and orchid ones. Not satisfied with plain leaves, hybridizers developed the “girl” type leaf. The first of these was “Blue Girl.” Leaves on all “girls” have a pale green area where the leaf blade joins the leaf stem. The terms “boy” and “girl” apply to the leaf formation, and have nothing to do with blossoms they all bloom.
Whether you are a first-time grower, or a frustrated fifteenth time buyer, you’ll want to know how to make your plants grow and bloom. I firmly believe that you can make your violets go to work quickly if:
You grow them in porous soil, water them thoroughly with room temperature water, and don’t water them again until the soil that’s about an inch below the topsoil feels dry (later I’ll tell you how to test this) ; give them ample light (either natural or artificial), keep humidity (moisture content of the air around the plant) at 40 per cent or more, fertilize healthy growing plants twice a month.
For the experienced gardener, soil is no problem. For the beginner, or the unsuccessful gardener, here are some ingredients that make a porous potting mixture: equal parts of peat moss, loam, sand and leaf mold. with a half cup of charcoal to each quart of soil. If you can’t obtain leaf mold, substitute compost. You can save yourself the bother of mixing by purchasing packaged soil from the nursery or garden center. I’m partial to one with a redwood leaf base and added humus, sponge rock and charcoal. It’s moisture retentive and provides a porous substance for roots to ramble around in,
Potting African Violets
When potting African violets make sure you have good drainage… some hobbiest place one half inch of pea rock in the bottom of the pot.
Place budded and blooming violets in east or shaded south windows during fall and winter.
A well lighted north window may be all right for summer care. If you grow them under fluorescent lights, set them so that the pot rim is about 11 inches from 40-watt tubes.
African violets will bloom if the humidity is 40 per cent or above. You can measure it with a humidity guide which you can purchase at any hardware store.
If you garden on a window sill, above a radiator, or on a table place about one inch of pea rock or gravel in the bottom of a tray. Keep water in the tray to just below the pot level.
African violets grow well in daytime temperatures of 72 to 75 degrees with a drop of five to ten degrees at night. lf you are growing plants near a window, the temperature will be lower at night, and you won’t have to change the thermostat.
A question frequently asked is, “How often shall I water my violets?” No matter what kind of pot you choose, water them thoroughly from top or bottom with room temperature water. Until you acquire the knack of watering, test for moisture content by sticking your finger into the soil. If it feels dry about an inch below the topsoil, you may safely water that plant. If the soil feels damp-wet-to the touch, better wait another day and test again. Plants need less watering during cloudy weather because evaporation is slower.
If you grow violets in natural light, blot off drops of water you spill on leaves so that the sun won’t burn leaf tissue. Plants under fluorescent lights need not be blotted because this type of artificial light is cool and won’t scar leaves. Clean dust from leaves by taking plants to a sink and washing them with tepid water. Be sure leaves are dry before setting them in the sun.
Propagate African violets through leaf cuttings, division or seeds. For the leaf cutting method, choose a middlesized leaf, cut it with about an inch of leaf stem (called the petiole). Insert this into a small bottle or glass of water, a pot of moistened vermiculite, sand or sphagnum moss. Set it where it receives about the same light your growing plants do. Speed the rooting process by dusting the cut end in rooting hormone powder. Within ten days to a month new roots appear. If you’re rooting leaves in water, plant them into sterilized soil when the root crop is about an inch long. Transplant cuttings from solid media (vermiculite, etc.) when the leaves of small plants unfold and the plants are about an inch high.
A two inch pot is right for this first shift. Place transparent plastic bags (or use plastic bottles) over the new plantings to ward off shock. These can be removed within a week. After six weeks of growing, the plants can then be shifted into three inch pots. You can let them flower in these, and as they mature, move them into four inch pots.
Show and specimen plants are kept down to single crowns by removing side shoots or new plants from leaf axils, as soon as they can be nipped off. I have found a curved grapefruit knife well suited to this operation.
If you have an old plant with many crowns… one that looks as though several plants were growing in the same pot – divide it up and repot it. Knock the plant out of the pot. Use your hands to separate roots. If several plants seem to spring out of a common stem, choose the best looking one and leave it on the main stem and roots. Remove the others. You can root all of these cuttings just as you root leaves. Most plants grown from leaves or plant division will be identical to the mother plant.
Growing from Seed
Growing African violets from seeds is fun and it’s an easy way to have a large collection of colors and forms. If you are a beginner, better order your first lot of seed from a reliable seed house. Later on you may want to try your hand at hybridizing and producing some of your own varieties.
The yellow sacs inside the blossom are the anthers and are filled with powdery yellow pollen. The elongated threadlike appendage near the anthers is the pistil. When ready for pollination the top of the pistil, called the stigma, enlarges and reveals a near white color. For pollination select two blossoms from the same plant, or cross pollinate by applying pollen from one plant to the stigma of another.
The plant receiving the pollen will be the seed parent and bear the pod. If pollination is successful, the blossom will fall off and you will note a slight swelling at the base of the pistil. This is the beginning of the seed pod. Seed ripens in four to nine months depending on the variety. As the pod ripens, it loses color and softens. You can pick it and lay it away to dry, or let it dry on the plant.
Let the seed ripen two or three weeks after harvesting. Sow these dust like seeds on top of vermiculite, moistened sand or sphagnum moss. A covered glass casserole or transparent plastic soda bottles makes a fine planter. Set the planting in a warm (room temperature) area. When you note flecks of green appearing on the surface, move the planting to the light or place it about three or four inches from 40-watt fluorescent light tubes. When seedlings have four to six good leaves, prick them out by slipping a pencil or pickle fork under them. Plant several of them in a pot of regular growing mixture.
Many years ago, early enthusiasts of the African violet organized the African Violet Society of America. Anyone interested in growing African violets should check it out.
African violets are just what every window needs to color up a room. Enjoy some in your garden very soon.