By Rob Sproule
“I perhaps owe having becoming a painter to flowers.”
– Claude Monet
Your Grandmother probably had an african violet or 3 in a carefully tended spot in her home, perhaps next to a favourite chair. The odds are that your mother didn’t have one, as they fell out of fashion in the 90s.
But what’s old is new again, and these humble Tanzanian plants are filling bathrooms and kitchens once more. As plants go, it’s unique in its ability to be plain at first glance, then fascinating the longer we look. Here’s a primer on this diminutive, enduring champion:
Where Do They Come From?:
In 1892, Baron Walter von Saint-Paul Illaire noticed a low growing, fuzzy leafed plant with remarkable blue flowers perched on a slope of the Usambara mountains. He collected it under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, one thing led to another, and one of the world’s favourite house-plants found its fame.
Today, there are dozens of species and countless varieties of the genus Saintpaulia. It’s become a collector’s favourite for its unique growing quirks and entire societies have sprung up to basque in their oddities.
African Violet Care 101:
You’re probably more scared of them than you need to be. They have some famous quirks, but once you manage those they’re remarkably easy to grow and keep for many, many, many years.
Watering & Fertilizing:
They’re fusspots about watering. Use tepid water, either leaving it out first or checking with your hand, as cold water could bring on root rot. Lift the leaves so you moisten the soil and not the fuzz, or you’ll get brown spots. Water until it flows out the bottom in order to flush out any accumulated salts. Empty the saucer after so they’re not sitting in it.
The 3 numbers on African Violet fertilizers tend to be almost the same. This balances your nitrogen (leaf growth), phosphorous (flowers), and micro nutrients (essential). You can buy special violet food use a basic 20-20-20 at half strength.
Getting Them to Flower:
They’re flower best with 12 hours of indirect bright light (as opposed to next-to-window-scorching light) to bloom. In the winter, the best place is near a south or west window, but make sure they’re a few feet from the glass once summer sunlight comes.
You’ll want to add some humidity in the winter to keep them blooming. Ferns and other plants nearby will help, as will pebble trays of water. Well lit bathrooms (with ample windows) are perfect. Clay or terra cotta pots help. They pull moisture from the roots (avoiding root rot for your dainty darling) and it evaporates into the air.
Snip spent blossoms off at the base to encourage new flowers, and keep them away from hot air vents and cold drafts (ie. front doors in winter). They love houses that keep their homes warm during the day and turn their thermostats down at night.
Are African Violets Poisonous?:
I get asked this all the time. The short answer is a happy “no.” But here’s the thing:
– Cats will chew the leaves; it’s what they do. If they chew enough 2 things will happen: the plant will suffer and the cat will vomit. The plant isn’t toxic, but the cat can’t digest it.
– Kids stuff things in their mouths, leaves included. It’s not toxic, but the texture makes it very difficult to swallow, thus a choking hazard. And then they’ll throw it up. So if you have hungry cats and mouth-stuffing children, keep it high.