Caring for Azaleas and Poinsettias

Lisha Utt
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

African violets are one of my most favorite houseplants. I especially enjoy the color their flowers provide in the middle of the winter.

African violets are called Saintpaulia. They belong to the family Gesneriaceae which includes among other house plants, gloxinias. African violets were discovered in Africa in 1892 by Baron Walter von Saint Paul. It is unclear whether he sent the plants or seeds to his father in northern Germany, but either way the plants flowered there in 1893. 

African violets were introduced into the United States shortly after their discovery. They made no particular impact, probably because the early growers did not know how to care for them. In 1927 a Los Angeles nursery imported the seeds from England and Germany. About a 1,000 plants were grown and launched the African violet popularity we see today.

There are two basic types of African violets. The first is Trailing types. These are defined as African violets with a main stem which divides into a multicrown plant. The leaves are more widely spaces and the flowers are smaller. They can be miniature or standard size, and several varieties are available. 

The second, more common type is the Standard and Miniature African violets. There are thousands of varieties with a huge assortment of flower forms, colors, sizes and leaf types. Sizes range from micro-miniature to miniature to semi-miniature to standard to large varieties.

 Leaves can be standard green leaf, variegated leaves, crinkles edges, saw-like leaves and so on. The petals can be single, semi-double, frilled, star, bicolor or multicolor, and the colors range from pink, red, coral, blue, purple, white and mixes. The standard and miniature types are the African violets you see most often in nurseries, grocery stores and flower shops.

So how should you care for your African violet? African violets have five basic requirements.

  • Steady warmth and average temperature. Avoid cold drafts and sudden temperature changes.
  • Good light, ideally an east or south window in the winter and a west window in the summer. Always protect your African violet from strong sunlight. Some sources suggest providing artificial light at night for winter blooming. However my African violets always sit in a southwest window and bloom off and on all year long with no artificial light in the winter.
  • Careful watering. I believe this is the most important requirement for growing African violets successfully. First wait until the surface of the plant is dry before watering, then water the plant either from the top-down or the bottom-up. It is essential that water does not get on the crown or it can cause rot and the plant will die. Water on the leaves can cause brown spots. It is also important to use lukewarm water when watering an African violet. Cold water will also cause brown spots on the leaves. To water from the bottom-up sit the plant in a bowl of lukewarm water for 15-20 minutes, sometimes longer depending on the size of the plant. To water from the top-down use a watering can with a long spout and carefully pour lukewarm water on the plant avoiding getting water on the leaves and the crown.
  • Regular feeding. African violets should be fed every 2 weeks in the spring and summer with a liquid fertilizer made for African violets, like 10-10-5. After a plant has had a big burst of flowers it is better not to fertilize right away and never fertilize sick or newly potted plants.
  • High air humidity. To provide high air humidity for African violets, stand the pot on a pebble tray or place the pot within a larger pot and surround with damp peat. I admit, I don't do either of these things and my African violets seem to do just fine.

Finally repotting. Repot your African violet only when the plant looks very crowded. Just increase your pot one size. African violets flower better when they are in pots just large enough to accommodate their root system. Shallow clay pots work well. The soil should be light and porous so that water drains well and the roots are not harmed. There are soil mixtures made specifically for African violets.

African violets are a fun and easy houseplant to grow and will flourish with the proper care. Enjoy!

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