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Don't Shrink Away From Proper Care for African Violets

March 04, 2000|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When my daughter, Sabrina, asked me to buy her an African violet, I was skeptical. The purple blooms were stunning, but would it ever flower again? To our delight, it has continued to reflower, each bloom cycle lovelier and fuller than the one before.

Now I know why African violets (Saintpaulias) are considered one of the most popular flowering houseplants. Give them the right conditions and you can enjoy their pert, happy blooms throughout the year.

Discovered in eastern Africa in 1892 by Baron von Saint Paul, a German working in Tanzania, African violets have been widely hybridized over the years. Today you'll find them in a variety of colors, forms and leaf textures.

African violets tend to come in pastel hues such as purple, pink, mauve, lavender, white, cranberry, coral and blue. Some are two-toned or edged in another color, and others have ruffled or fringed edges on the petals. The leaves are generally oval-shaped and slightly scalloped.

There are four size ranges. Standard African violets grow about a foot or more across; semi-miniatures 6 to 8 inches across with standard-size flowers; true miniatures reach just 4 to 6 inches in diameter with small flowers and there are also trailing forms.

The standards look good on their own, while the semi-miniatures and miniatures often make eye-catching groupings, said Pat Gosnell, owner of Regal Flowers in Orange, which carries a variety of African violets.

"African violets are versatile plants that are small enough to brighten just about any area of the home," she said.

The secret to getting African violets to look their best and re-bloom is to give them the right growing conditions, Gosnell said. "If your African violet hasn't flowered in awhile, then there is a reason," she said. "Make some adjustments and you should get plenty of blooms."

Watering

It's important not to over-water your African violet. Between waterings, let the surface of the soil dry out. Always water from the bottom, because getting water on the leaves will cause them to spot and rot. Use water that is room temperature or slightly warmer, as cold water can also cause leaf spot or may prevent the plant from developing new buds. After watering, drain away any excess water in the saucer within an hour.

Some African violet growers choose to use a wick irrigation system. This involves a wick that sits in a water reservoir below the plant that is threaded up through the bottom of the pot. The wick continually draws on the water reservoir, transporting just the right amount of water to the plant and never wetting the foliage.

A wick system can be found at nurseries, or you can make your own, said Anaheim gardener Irmi Bullinger, who is a member of the Tustana African Violet Society, which meets in Orange.

For a wick, Bullinger uses acrylic yarn or No. 18 nylon cord found at hardware and home supply stores. She creates a water reservoir underneath the pot in a separate container.

One end of the wick goes into the water and the other is threaded through a drainage hole in the bottom of the pot.

Lighting

African violets like bright, indirect light. Provide eight to 12 hours of sunlight or artificial light per day. While sufficient light is important for blooming, make sure the sunlight isn't too bright or it will burn leaves.

If you'll be placing African violet on a windowsill in a southern or western exposure, make sure that the plant is protected by sheer curtains or adjustable blinds. Rotate the plant on a regular basis so that all sides get equal amounts of light.

African violets also need at least eight hours of darkness in each 24-hour period, so don't place your plant in an area that is continually lighted.

Fertilizing

Keep African violets blooming by adding a quarter-strength solution of fertilizer every time you water or add the food to the water reservoir if you have a wick system. Use an all-purpose, well-balanced food such as a 20-20-20.

Temperature, Humidity

African violets prefer an even temperature of 65 to 75 degrees, which generally isn't a problem in most homes. They also like humid conditions, as long as the leaves aren't wet. The best way to provide humidity is to stand the pot in a dish of moist gravel, pebbles or marbles. Make sure the bottom of the plant pot does not come in contact with water.

When to Repot

African violets actually need to be pot bound before they will flower. In general, the pot size should be one-third the diameter of the plant. If your plant is 9 inches across, use a 3-inch pot.

If you put an African violet into a pot that is too big, it will probably stop blooming. Repot only when the pot size becomes smaller than one-third of the diameter of the plant. At that point you will probably see roots coming out of the drainage holes and the plant will have become very leafy and will probably not be blooming well.

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