Unlike most houseplants, the flowers are the stars of the show with African violets. Though these fuzzy plants have a reputation for being finicky, they're actually not difficult to grow once you know how to follow some basic rules for their care. And, in the right conditions, these plants may bloom all year round. Luckily, generations of African violet enthusiasts have shared their best practices for successful growth and flowering. Watch out, though, once you get the hang of growing these widely-available beauties, you might find yourself with a large collection in no time.
About This Plant
African violets hail from the foggy cloud forests of eastern tropical Africa. There are 6-20 true species in the Saintpaulias genus, named after Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, who sent seeds from Tanzania back to his botanist father in Germany. Hundreds of sub-species and hybrids have been bred by collectors, so there are an astonishing array of flower types and colors available online, or from flower show vendors.
According to the ASPCA, African violets are non-toxic to dogs and cats, making them a good choice for pet-owners.
Where to Grow
African violets need bright, indirect light such as from a south- or east-facing window, although direct sunlight can burn the leaves. They will do best at 65 to 75°F (18 to 24°C), and although they can survive temperatures up to about 90°F (32°C), they will die if exposed to below 50°F (10°C).
Standard indoor humidity is generally fine, but if your air is especially dry, you may want to place your plant on a tray of pebbles that you keep moist. Don't let the roots of your African violet sit in water, however.
Care and Planting
The best soil for an African violet is actually a "soil-less" mix that stays moist, but isn't too dense, allowing air to circulate around the roots. You can mix your own from one part brown sphagnum peat moss, one part vermiculite, and one part perlite. You can also buy commercial African violet potting mix, but, confusingly, these aren't always a good choice. Look for a light, fluffy mix. Many people recommend amending commercial mixes by diluting with half perlite. And as with most houseplants, a pot with drainage holes is necessary.
Water African violets with room-temperature water when the top of the soil feels dry to the touch, and be sure to let the soil dry out before watering again. If the soil is dry, but you're still not sure whether your violet needs to be watered, feel a leaf to see whether it feels limp. Limp leaves plus dry soil means it's time to water. Limp leaves plus wet soil probably means you're overwatering, or using the wrong potting mix.
Try to avoid splashing water on the leaves, since this can cause discoloration. One way to avoid this pitfall is to water from the bottom. Fill the saucer or bottom of a cachepot with water, let the plant absorb the water for about 10 minutes, then pour out the excess. The only caveat with this watering technique is that harmful salts could eventually build up in the soil, so you should occasionally water the soil thoroughly from the top until water drains out the bottom of the pot.
Fertilizer is important to help keep your African violet healthy and blooming. If your potting mix doesn't contain any, feed regularly with a standard balanced fertilizer or a specialized African violet fertilizer.
One of the keys to keeping African violets healthy for decades is repotting once or twice a year by refreshing the potting mix. This doesn't mean potting up into a bigger pot, because most mature African violets generally need to stay in a 4-5" pot. You'll know it's time to repot when your African violet has lost its lower leaves, forming a bare "neck." Remove the plant from its pot, and with a clean, sharp knife or shears, cut away an amount from the bottom of the roots equal to the length of the bare neck of the plant. Put the plant back in the pot so that the bottom of the leaves are level with the rim of the pot. Add fresh potting mix to cover the neck to the pot rim. Water the plant less than usual while it's developing new roots from the neck.
Pinching off spent blooms helps encourage the growth of new ones. A plant that is refusing to bloom probably isn't getting enough light. If you're determined to get flowers, but your windows aren't providing adequate light, you can supplement with fluorescent grow lights 12-18" above the plant.
How to Propagate
Another reason that it's tempting to amass a large violet collection is that it's quite easy to propagate African violets from leaves. The best time to do this is spring, but it can be done year-round. Remove a fresh, mature leaf from a plant that you want to propagate. With a sharp, clean knife or blade, cut the leaf stem at a 45-degree angle to about ½" in length. Fill a small pot with a very light and porous rooting mix, and bury the stem up to the bottom of the leaf. Water, cover the pot with a clear plastic bag to help retain moisture, and place near bright light, but out of direct sun. The leaf should grow roots in about a month, and produce tiny plantlets that will be ready to be transferred to their own pots in 2-5 months.
Alternately, you can root a leaf in water, but you'll need to ensure that only the stem is in the water, not the leaf. You can use a container with a long neck, like a beer bottle, or put plastic wrap over a glass jar, then poke the stem through a hole. Transfer to potting mix when the roots are about ¼", and wait for plantlets to develop.