How to Grow and Care for Saintpaulia - the African Violet Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Grow and Care for Saintpaulia - the African Violet

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Saintpaulia or African Violet is a flowering plant that originated in Africa1. Popular as houseplants in cooler regions of the globe, there are several different types and species but all are generally similar, having overlapping rosettes of succulent deep-green velvety heart-shaped leaves and purple, pink or white flowers with five petals.

If you can find the right spot for an African Violet in your home, then it will reward you with a succession of flowers throughout the year.

Types of African Violet

Saintpaulia is named after Walter von Saint Paul, who found the plant, and his father, who was President of the German Dendrological Society and who sent the plants to a botanical garden to be scientifically studied for the first time in 1892. There are various types of African Violet, ranging from micro (3in or 7cm) to large (12in or 30cm). The leaves may point upwards from the stem and be arranged in neat circles, or cluster more randomly and point downwards. The flowers may be purple, pink, white, or a combination of two or more colours, and may have smooth or frilly edges. Double flowers may also be seen, where extra petals are clustered around the centre of the bloom.

Saintpaulia ionantha was the first species discovered, in Tanzania, and there are eight subspecies and many hybrids derived from it. The other species are:

  • Saintpaulia brevipilosa - with leaves packed closely together
  • Saintpaulia goetzeana - has flowers with two purple petals and three white petals
  • Saintpaulia inconspicua - has small white flowers
  • Saintpaulia nitida - with glossy leaves
  • Saintpaulia pusilla - very small plants
  • Saintpaulia rupicola - a trailing African Violet
  • Saintpaulia shumensis - has a serrated edge to its leaves
  • Saintpaulia teitensis - first discovered in the Teita Hills of Kenya, and has a sprawling habit

As well as the main Saintpaulia species, subspecies and hybrids, there are also chimeras. A chimera African Violet contains mutated cells alongside other cells in its flowers or leaves. For example, there may be (pigmentless) white stripes in otherwise purple blooms, or the leaves may be variegated (trimmed with white cells lacking chlorophyll).

How to Grow African Violets

If you find the right spot in your home, then African Violets are fairly easy to grow, but they are fussy and will sulk or even die if they are not happy. They need good light, but not direct sunlight as their fleshy leaves will scorch in the heat.

How Much Water?

The compost should be allowed to dry out between waterings (but not so dry that the plant wilts). Moisten the compost thoroughly, but ensure that the pot is not left standing in water. It is important to water the soil, not the leaves, as droplets that sit on a leaf can also cause damage. Some people occasionally mist the leaves with a fine spray of water to help remove any dust and replicate the more humid environment of Saintpaulia's original habitat, but this Researcher finds that the commonly available varieties grow happily enough without such treatment.

Which Location?

Choose a location near a window but not on the window ledge so the plant is shielded from the sun and from any cold draughts. An east- to southeast-facing location is probably best, to maximise the available indirect sunlight, but experimentation may be required to find the ideal place for your plant. In this Researcher's experience, African Violets particularly enjoy sitting next to a television2, which means potential extra enjoyment of the plant every day if adverts interrupt your favourite TV programme (or indeed if a TV programme interrupts your favourite adverts).

Boosting Blooms

To encourage a long flowering season, you can use African Violet plant food3 or other fertilizer with relatively high phosphorus amounts to promote flower growth, and feed your plants every week in summer. African Violets can be repotted into a larger pot with fresh compost if baby plants form around the main plant or if the base of the rosette of leaves becomes too big. However, the plant prefers its roots to be somewhat restricted, so the new pot should have a diameter of roughly a third of the diameter of the rosette of leaves. Alternatively, you can plant more than one African Violet in a wider pot - when the plants become established and the roots fill the pot enough, then flowers should form on all the plants and create an excellent display.

How to Propagate African Violets

It is easy to propagate African Violets by simply cutting a healthy leaf from a plant and pushing it into a plantpot filled with moist compost, then waiting for new growth.

Note that leaves from chimera Saintpaulias with multi-coloured flowers will not grow into plants with the same colour flowers as the parent plant because the mutated genes in some of the flower cells are not present in any of the leaf cells. Your Saintpaulia may develop a baby plant to one side of it, though, and the baby will share the characteristics of the parent.

If you have two different African Violets and cross-pollinate the flowers, pods of seeds will be formed and you can grow your own hybrid - plant the seeds in a pot of moist compost as soon as the pod ripens and keep the pot at room temperature (19-24°C) in a bright place out of direct sunlight.

Not content with traditional hybrids, many people around the world use tissue culture to create their own chimeras by growing them from just a few cells, selecting some cells with mutated genes and some with non-mutated genes and seeing what colour combinations appear in the resultant plants. Commercial growers will have laboratories containing equipment dedicated to developing new plants and propagating hundreds of them in one go. For amateurs, home tissue culture kits can be purchased with all the chemicals needed, plus instructions on how to use everyday kitchen items4 to set up a small-scale propagation process.

Troubleshooting

As well as the possibility of the leaves scorching in the sun, or developing brown spots where water droplets have sat on the leaves, there are a few other things to watch out for when growing African Violets.

  • Yellow leaves - this may be due to overfeeding, or to dry air. Stop feeding, or use diluted feed for a few weeks, and stand your African Violet in a tray filled with gravel and water to increase the humidity around the plant.

  • Pale leaves with curly edges - the plant is too cold. Ensure that the temperature of the plant's location does not fall below 16°C at night by moving the plant further away from the window on frosty evenings.

  • Drooping leaves - the plant may be wilting from lack of water, or developing crown rot disease from overwatering. Crown rot disease is infectious, so affected plants should be removed from the house and disposed of.

  • Mouldy leaves - the plant has powdery mildew. Affected leaves should be removed and destroyed. The humidity around the plant should be decreased, so leaf spraying should not be carried out.

You should also look out for insects attacking your plants - African Violets are attractive to whitefly5, mealy bugs6 and cyclamen mite7. Affected leaves should be removed straight away.

Go Forth and Grow!

If you're ready for the challenge of finding a happy home for an African Violet - however you choose to obtain one, whether by leaf, seed, tissue culture or simply buying one from a garden centre - they will provide you with interest and colour for many years to come.

1As you might expect.2Or on it, if it happens that the TV is not a flat-screen.3A specialist mix that is often available from garden centres.4Such as vinegar, sugar, glass jars and a microwave.5Which are white flies.6Which leave deposits of white fluff on affected plants.7Which cause a film of dust on the underside of leaves.

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