Saturday, May 14, 2011

Easy Keepers: African Violets

We had two days of rain this week, bringing two inches+ of badly needed moisture. A good thing. However, we are not able to get the garden planted because it is just too muddy. We went to garden centers last week and bought our plants and seeds, but today we have our little granddaughter's first ballet recital and it is cold and threatening more rain, so the garden will have to wait. In the meantime, I wanted to write about keeping African violets.

I love African violets. I have kept them for years, and despite their reputation as being difficult keepers, they really are quite easy to grow. I bought my first violets from Zelma Gregory. She was the librarian at the high school where I began my teaching career way back in 1970. She had a passion for the beautiful little plants and virtually taught me all I needed to know to keep healthy plants. She had every flat space in her little 3 bedroom bungalow covered with violets (counter tops, beds, tables), and she even had lights set up in the basement where she had more growing under florescent lights. She had leaves set in little plastic cups growing babies, propagating new plants. All plants were named and she seemed to have a story for each one. Zelma passed away a few years ago at nearly 100 years old, but her collection lives on for a dear friend, her former student and retired teacher, took over her collection and carries on her work. I have yet to visit him, but I may just get around to seeing him this summer to add to my present meager collection.

Despite their reputation as difficult and hard to keep, following simple little life-style requirements will keep African violets happy and healthy:

Light: filtered light. Avoid, direct sun which will burn their leaves. I keep mine in my bedroom in an east window with a sheer curtain filtering direct early morning sun. They do quite well in a northern window or under fluorescent lights in offices, as well. They loved my west kitchen window too, but the grand kids kept knocking them over. So now they are out of a high traffic area in a peaceful, tranquil bedroom.

Water: Tepid, not cold water. Water from the bottom to avoid root root, but only enough to keep them from standing too long in water. They don't like soggy feet; water weekly or more often if your house is dry, as mine in Colorado tends to be. Cold water will make their leaves spot. Add violet food weekly, too. 

And that's about it. 

However, African violets are not disease or problem free.  They will get mites, root rot, limp leaf, and a variety of other ailments, some of which are curable, others are not. This violet suffered from what I will simply call limp leaf. It's bottom leaves were weak and droopy, so I moved it to the kitchen, thinking I would just throw it away. I stopped watering, waiting for it to totally croak, but it just wouldn't let go. So I pulled it out of the soil, cut off the roots, pulled off the limp leaves up to the center crown that seemed healthy, and put it in water to re-root it. As you can see, it is growing a healthy new root system. Soon I will re-pot it, and it will be blooming by the end of the summer.

I inherited these two poor specimens when we put my mother-in-law in a nursing home. Violets can grow long and leggy, which doesn't affect their ability to bloom, but they are rather unsightly and top heavy. They will also grow suckers. Mrs. Gergory said to use a sharp, pointed knife or tooth pick to remove the suckers, which will grow and mature into full plants, even blooming, as grandma's did. The plants become over crowded and will eventually crowd each other out and die. Grandma's violets separated into two nice healthy plants, both of which have blooms. Once they stop blooming, I will divide them, cut down the stem, re-root, and re-plant.

I buy my violets anytime I see a pretty one, which these days is not often. The ones in the garden centers are often neglected and just don't look healthy. I will buy only when they have a new shipment. And the super market often times has them on special, but they are too commericalized and all look the same, yet I succumb. My favorite place is a little store in Englewood, a Denver suburb, The Violet Showcase. This guy has been in business for over 3 decades. He has the most beautiful plants at every stage of development and so many varieties and colors that it is hard to decide which one (s) to take home. He also sell canaries, another passion that I must resist.

I don't do very well at keeping house plants because when I work, I just don't have the time to take good care of them, but despite their bad reputation, African violets for me seem a bit forgiving. I will forget to water them, see their leaves drop, moan, apologize, and bring them their favorite vitamin water and they perk up. If I can keep them, so can you. I have rambled on quite enough about my favorite house plant. Sometime I will discuss how to propagate violets, which I used to do quite successively.

What's your favorite house plant?


  1. They are really beautiful. I have attempted to grow them but unsuccessful. They may not be that forgiving. Perhaps the weather here isn't quite suitable. Glad that they do very well for you.

  2. I remember Mrs. Gregory! She was my librarian and her husband was my elementary principal. They were both so sweet. Small world-I graduated the year before you started teaching.

  3. I love violets but always seem to kill them somehow. Yours are so beautiful.

  4. Through my adulthood, I've always had at least one. In fact, I think I bought my first one at The Violet Showcase when I was fresh out of college :) I find them quite easy as well. I'm fascinated that you cut off the roots and stuck it in in water - I've never heard of that. XOL

  5. I adore African violets and find them long flowering. I learned alot from your post. I buy them specifically for their flowering period and I'm naughty in that I throw the plant out after but now I'll think twice about this. Kelli

  6. Hi Ann!
    I know what you mean about the rain and the mud! I was going to plant some seeds today, but we woke up to a wet world.
    My mother-in-law used to grow violets. She was a houseplant whiz. I am not. I do like a geranium or two around the house, though. I loved reading your post. Glad to see you back!

  7. Love your garden! Martha has her hens shot by pros - I understand - like herding cats!

    Thanks for your kind comments!



  8. Ann I may try my hand at growing them again. I think that African violets are the cutest house plants..But just like Judy, I manage to kill them.

    Thanks for sharing.. You gave good information and your violets are cute as little buttons.

  9. Ann, you've got to check out this post I did about our trip to one of the world's premiere African Violet greenhouses! I just found this treasure hidden in rural, upstate NY: