Houseplants are having a moment. And African violets are everywhere in local nurseries and giving monstera (Monstera deliciosa) a run for its money. With the resurgence in the African violet’s popularity, it’s a great time to revisit Wendy Diaz’s article to learn more about their history, characteristics, and care needs. Plants often play a significant role in intergenerational relationships and familial memories, as Wendy’s piece illustrates.
By Wendy Diaz, EMGV
Very few houseplants exist in my home. My gardening efforts are concentrated outdoors in our temperate climate; but there is one houseplant, no matter where I live, that I always like to have for both aesthetic and nostalgic reasons, and that is the African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha). My mother and her mother always had them sitting on a table next to a sunny window in small pots with saucers, so I feel I should carry on the tradition. Several years ago, my mother repotted my current African violet plant during her last visit to my home. I have a great spot for it in front of my westerly facing window, and every year it sprouts new crown growth, which I divide, repot and give away. It takes very little care. If they have the perfect growing conditions, African violets can flower almost continuously. Extensive care guides are available from the Missouri Botanical Garden  and the African Violet Society of America but I will summarize the basics for you in this little post.
The African violet is native to the mountains of Tanzania and Kenya (Eastern Africa). Despite its occurrence in homes worldwide it is now only believed to grow wild in the Amani Nature reserve in Tanzania. The flower of the original species typically has 5 petals and ranged from pale blue to lavender in color. In 1892, the plant was officially discovered by Baron Walter von Saint Paul Illaire, serving as the imperial district governor of Tanginyika, who sent seeds back to his father in Germany. His father took the plant to the Royal Botanical Garden director and botanist, Hermann Wendland, who gave it the botanical name Saintpaulia ionantha. The genus is named after the Baron and the species is named for the Greek word ‘resembling a violet’, referencing its flower. Two British botanists discovered the plant previously and took it to Kew Gardens to be recognized, but the plants were in such poor condition that they could not be scientifically classified4.
A New York florist introduced the plant in 1894 but the drafty homes of the time meant the plants died when they were chilled and they gained a finicky reputation. With the advent of fluorescent lighting, better understanding of their required growing conditions, and the development of a wide variety of flower colors, foliage and sizes, African violets became a more popular houseplant2. The first African Violet Show was held in Atlanta in 1946 and the 76th annual African Violet Show, organized by the African Violet Society of America, was held in May of 2022.
African violets are low compact plants that typically grow in a rosette form with thick hairy green leaves and stems with velvety- purple flowers usually having 5 petals (two smaller petals at the top and three larger petals on the bottom) and yellow centers. The flowers emerge in small panicles (multi-branched) above the foliage. There are now a wide variety of cultivars that vary in size from micro-miniature (less than 3 inches across) to the large variety that can be more than 16 inches wide. My African violet is the standard variety and currently measures 14 inches wide and from the crown to top of flowers is 6 inches high. Various foliage types have also been developed, for example, leaves with wavy leaf edges, variegation or trailing habits. Flower types can be single blossom or double (10 petals) and multi-colored petals like white, pink, crimson and even yellow. Over 3000 photos displaying the diversity of African violet cultivars can be viewed in the photo gallery of the African Violet Society of American website.
Standard size African violet. Photo taken of rosette on February 28, 2021; thick green hairy leaves photo taken February 14, 2021 and close up of five petal purple flowers photo taken on February 10, 2021. (Image credit: Wendy Diaz)
Because their natural habitat is tropical in moist and shaded conditions on steep rock crevices near streams, the African violet thrives indoors with humidity of 50 to 60%, in moist but well-drained soil in small shallow pots next to a sunny window, but not in direct sunlight. My westerly facing high-efficiency window appears to be ideal for my African violet all year but you may have to move your African violet from a south-facing window in the summer months. It likes acidic soil with good aeration (25%). You can buy specifically prepared soilless mix to grow your African violet, but I have been successful with just potting soil, taking care not to overwater and an occasional application of fertilizer to keep the flowers coming (1/8 teaspoon 20-20-20 fertilizer per gallon of water). Homemade soil mixtures should contain 3 parts sphagnum peat moss, 2 parts vermiculite, and 1 part perlite and care should be given to position the crown of the plant just above the soil surface1.
African violets can flower almost continuously if their growing conditions are similar to the original habitat of wild African violets. (Left to right) In winter on February 10, 2021, in the fall on October 25, 2020 (pink dahlia and white muhly grass flowering outside in the background) and in the spring on April 25, 2018. (Image credit: Wendy Diaz)
The ideal pot should be smaller than the mature plant (they flower better if the roots are a little cramped; think crevice) and shallow (roots spread outward than down). In North Carolina if you don’t have your AC unit on high there should be enough humidity for the plants to thrive.
Water the roots, not the plant, and keep the foliage dry. There are self-watering African violet pots available to help make sure the plants get proper moisture and humidity but I have had success with a small clay pot placed on a dish. About once a week, when the soil feels dry to the touch, I gently part the leaves and pour room-temperature water from a narrow-spout watering can, directly to the soil making sure water spreads over the entire soil surface. I discard the excess water that drains into the dish making sure the pot does not sit in a dish of water for long. If you can remember and desire to maintain a symmetrical rosette form you can turn your plant a quarter-turn weekly. Occasionally, I snip off dead outside leaves at the base of the plant and pick off spent flowers. Each row of leaves produces a set of flowers only once.
The most common problems are cold temperatures (they need between 60 and 80 degrees F), not enough light for flowering to occur (position within 24 inches of a window), or crown rot due to overwatering. If you notice spotting on the leaves it is probably because you splashed cold water on them. If the plant develops long stems they need more light or if they lose their green color the plant needs less light (bleaching has occurred).
If you have a sunny window facing south, east or west and a small pot and saucer you can easily grow an African violet. I recommend the African violet for a continuous flowering houseplant that will brighten your home, even in winter, and who knows you may inspire a new generation of African violet enthusiast or create your own southern tradition of a ‘passalong’ African violet.
In memory of my mother, Marion Millar (1930 to 2020) who introduced to me to gardening and African violets.
Resources and Additional Information
Both North Carolina State University and University of Georgia Extension have excellent online resources on growing African violets.
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