How to Grow African Violets – Saintpaulias

How to Grow African Violets – Saintpaulias

The modern history of the African Violet or saintpaulia began with its discovery towards the end of the last century by the District Governor of Usambara in East Africa. He sent seeds to his father, who in his turn brought them to the notice of the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Herrenhausen, who issued the description of the species and named it Saintpaulia ionantha.

In the natural state, these plants root in the rock crevices where humus has gathered. A certain amount of shade is present in these places, which gives an idea of the conditions the plants like; which is plenty of light, but not direct sunshine, with humidity and warmth. They are becoming more popular with the advent of better home heating, although they have been of interest to commercial growers in the United States for nearly forty years.

Purple_African_Violet Saintpaulias have a reputation for being difficult plants to grow. In actual fact, the saintpaulia is no more difficult than many other house plants and it is an interesting plant to grow, easy to propagate and the flowers and leaves are both attractive. The leaves are broadly oval, darkish green and somewhat hairy. They are produced on short stout stalks from the base that spread flatly to form a background for the violet-blue, two-lipped flowers. The upper lip is broken into two lobes that are much smaller than the lower, which has three lobes, and there is a centre of orange-yellow stamens. The flowers are borne in loose cymes on stalks 3 to 4 inches long. There are now many varieties in shades of blue, purple, pink, white and almost red, and there are double-flowering forms of even greater beauty.

It is a good plan to purchase a first stock of plants in the early summer when house conditions are most likely to be favourable. Sunlight in the early morning or evening will do them no harm and, in summer, fine mesh net curtains will probably provide sufficient shade. In winter house plants should never be left between drawn curtains and the window pane, for that is the coldest part of the room. Room temperature should be a minimum of 10°C and it is preferable to water at a regular temperature of around 12°C to 15°C. It is fluctuation in temperature that does the harm.

saintpaulia Another cause of damage is the combination of high temperature and a dry atmosphere. African violets do not mind dryness around the roots, providing they are in a humid atmosphere, but keeping the soil moist is not sufficient to provide humidity around the plant. It is far better to keep the roots of the plant on the dry side as over watering will only cause them to rot. Steps must, therefore, be taken to provide this humid atmosphere, while at the same time keeping the plant soil only slightly moist.

Inside the house humidity can be provided by placing the pots of saintpaulias on a bed of constantly moist pebbles and gravel in a waterproof tray. Individual pots can be stood on damp pebbles in a saucer. A pot of saintpaulias may be put into a larger container and the space between the two packed with peat or Sphagnum moss, which has already been well soaked, and is afterwards kept moist. These plants also revel in steam and are good plants for a warm bathroom.

Pots must never be allowed to stand in water for the roots will certainly start to rot. As a general rule you will find that no feeding is required for African violets for at least a year after buying them. If they are not re-potted in the second year, an occasional dose of liquid feed during the summer months may be given, but this should only be in small quantities at rather long intervals, say every three to four weeks. Propagation is quite easily carried out, either by seed or by leaf cuttings.

Leaf cuttings are the easiest method and ensures that the resultant plants are the same as the plant that supplied the cuttings. A leaf from the plant you wish to propagate, together with its stem, should be removed and inserted shallowly into some propagating medium. Equal quantities of peat and sharp sand make a satisfactory mixture; or vermiculite, or pure sharp sand can be used. Leaves from the middle tier of leaves are usually suitable. They should be removed carefully with a sharp knife and trimmed square across the end of the stalk so that there is about 1 inch of stalk left. The trimmed cutting should be dried off for about an hour before insertion into the rooting medium, then buried about ¼ inch deep. An upturned jam jar over each pot conserves moisture and prevents the compost drying out. Late spring and early summer are the best time to propagate by leaf cuttings, during colder weather a propagating case, with bottom heat, would be necessary.

A simple method of increasing stock, where no special facilities are available for propagation, is by filling a large jam jar to the brim with rain water, tying paper over the top and making three or four holes in the paper. A good selected leaf should be inserted into each hole, poking the stems down well so that the leaf blade is only just clear of the paper, It can be topped up with rain water if necessary, making sure the water used is the same temperature as that already in the jar.

The jar must be stood in a window where there is plenty of light but no direct sun and within about six weeks white roots will be noticed coming out from the bottom of the stem. A little later very small leaves will be seen at the base of the leaf blade. As soon as the largest of these new leaves is about ½ inch high the leaf cuttings should be potted up separately, using a fairly rich compost, into 2 inch pots, very well crocked.

Popular varieties of saintpaulias are: Blue Boy, which has large single violet flowers; Blue Girl distinguished by the scalloped edges of its leaves and which also has single, violet flowers; Pink Beauty with single pink flowers; White Lady with single flowers that are white as the name implies. Although the single saintpaulias are more attractive to many people, they tend to drop their flowers more quickly whereas the double hold their flowers until they fade. When over, the double flowers can be removed with a pair of scissors otherwise they may rot and the rot spread down the flower stems to the leaves and body of the plant. Double varieties recommended are blue Double Delight, pink Rococo, mauve-violet Red Comet, white White Pride and pale mauve Lacy Lavender. They are seldom sold by name, however, except by the specialist nurseries, so the best points to look for when selecting plants are good dark foliage and thick flower stems.

Saintpaulia ionantha

A low-growing plant with dark green, hairy leaves growing in a circle around its centre. Clusters of vivid flowers occupy the centre of the plant when it is in bloom. It will flower for several months given reasonable care. There are varieties in white, red, purple or pink and others with double blossoms. The most popularly sold are of the single purple variety.


  • Growing season 15-22 °C (60-72 °F)
  • Minimum winter 13 C (50 °F)

Soil: A moist soil-less compost.

Where to position: In a light position out of full sun, except in winter when some sunlight is appreciated. They dislike draughts and sudden temperature changes.

Watering requirements: Use tepid soft water introduced below the leaves, straight onto the soil. Do not splash; droplets mark the leaves and cause holes. Water must not get into the crown of the plant; it remains and causes rotting. The plant needs high humidity. Mist spray daily in hot weather, weekly at other times.

General care: Snip off faded flowers and damaged leaves. Avoid sun damage. Re-pot it when necessary; too large a pot results in lush soft growth and fewer flowers. Give very weak liquid fertilizer fortnightly.

Rest: After flowering, it takes a short rest but this is more beneficial if extended by reducing water gradually until the soil is kept just moist for six weeks. Annual re-potting is essential in a wide shallow pot so that the leaves rest on its rim. Then gradually increase watering and in summer feed the plant.

When it looks sick:

  • Spotted, unsightly leaves: Caused by water droplets remaining on the leaves. Always shake them off. The plant looks dull and dry : Check that soil condition is correct. If it is, move the plant to an East-
  • facing window away from bright sunlight. Mist-spray regularly.
  • Mealy bugs : If found deal with.


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