February 11, 2013

My African Violet Makeover

I am on a top secret mission to make the African Violet cool again. Wait, was it ever cool?
It's time to rediscover exhibition African Violets - they make regular old store bought AV's
virtually boring. Get ready to be blown away, or at the very least, inspired.
In a secret room, on the second floor of my house, I keep a secret collection of plants under artificial lights. No, it's not pot. (It's probably a good thing as I get panic attacks if I smoke pot - just sayin'). In my secret room I grow African Violets. Lots of them. I think I've become African Violet crazy, ordering more and more each week.  I love African Violets. There. I said it. Hold the old lady jokes ( nothing against old ladies), but come on.....African Violets? Dude!

Sure, I drive a big-ass truck. Yes, I am covered in tattoo's and, yep - I have killed a turkey with my bare hands ( well, I took the picture), but I can't seem to help myself when autumn comes around, and it's time to begin thinking about gardening indoors, under lights, precisely where African Violets come into the picture. I am on a mission this year to make the African Violet ........cool.

New varieties have speckled flowers, ruffled petals and leaves, or fancy variegated leaves.

It will be a long task, for I must first navigate through cliche, redesign the iconic African Violet pot ( ugh- really? Mauve plastic?) and I will work of making the use of the color lavender illegal on every African Violet website, plant label and book. The African Violet is in need of a makeover - not the plant itself, for it seems to have everything going for it - for it's easy to grow, low cost of entry, for event the finest varieties sell for less than a Grande espresso at Starbucks, and they are highly collectable - the barrier must exist somewhere withing the name ( African Violet = Cat Lady), or the display limitations ( doilies, antimacassars and tea cups anyone?). My point it, if we all treated African Violets for what they are - the highly fascinating high-alpine tropical genus of Saintpaulia species from East African Mountains, we all might think of them a little differently. Don't believe me? Then read this great post by National Geographic blogger  Digital Nomad as he discovers the world of wild African Violets.

Kings Ransom, a new variety carried by Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses.

I myself have a long history with the genus Saintpaulia, having passed in and out of passions with this genus over my life. I cultivated plants on windowsills in high school, perfomed studies with the genus in college, and at least two times in the 30 years since graduating college, I tried collecting a few. I think I just never had the patience to keep them long enough, and justified saving deep African Violet immersion for my retirement years, when I can really appreciate their nuances - oh geesh - see? Maybe this is a sign! Early retirement on the doorstep and now, the genus Saintpaulia. I've finally figured it out!

Some African Violets one will never find at a Supermarket are selections like this one. 'Rob's Delicious' is a
semi-mini with incredible sunny, variegated fuzzy leaves.

The genus Saintpaula is small, with only  5 or 6 species - all native to south central Tanzania ( yes, African Violets are indeed from Africa, which at first, even surprised me). As I am unofficially taking the role this year of honorary African Violet Evangelist, I think it's time you too rediscover the poor, neglected common African Violet. But before we all jump off of the gesneriad cliff, a few things to note.  First, African Violets are not true violets ( the genus viola). It drives me NUTTY when people tell me that their mother grows 'violets' whenever I write about true violets ( as in 'scented sweet Viola odorata). Afriican Violets, I mean Saintpaulia are tropical-alpine plants,  found in the mountains, in cloud mists, and they are not even remotely related to any true violet.

Cosmic Blast, a variety from Lyndon Lyon Greenhouses, a specialist grower

An entire group of hybrids have pinkish variegation, and wait until you see the spotted flowers. Exhibition
varieties are so superior to commercial varieties, that once you see them, you may never think about
African Violets in quite the same way again.

Taxonomists have placed Saintpaulia firmly into the foundation of the plant family known as Gesneriadaceae - the gesneriads. Youv'ew heard of them by other names.  Gloxinia ( siningia), the Cape Primrose ( Streptocarpus or 'Strep's', as the collectors call them  and the many, many other genus within this fascinating plant family.  The Gesneriad Society itself is a serious group of plant collectors - perhaps even too serious for me, up there with the Orchid people, but I've found that although the fine, serious Gesneriad collectors are serious, the African Violet collectors remain isolated, often holding their own shows, and trading plants on-line. Clearly, the African Violet collectors are a different breed. Sort of like comfort food chefs, amongst gourmet chefs. Serious, but in their own friendly way. A secret club ( just search on eBay for African Violet leaves), and you will see what I mean.

Easy to grow, African Violets don't demand much - basically, they enjoy the same temperature we enjoy - near 70º F
I keep mine under artificial lights ( check out the Artichoke seedlings, which enjoy the warmth indoors)

This past autumn, I purchased about 30 plants from Rob's Violets, and from some collectors on eBay. African Violets can be found in most garden centers, nurseries and even in your local super market - but these are common varieties - I wanted the collector forms. New crosses, new selections, new or unusual colors and forms - types that one would never find unless one attended an African Violet show. My plants arrived small ( as they tend to come), as they were propagated recently, but this weekend, as I carefully repotted them from their tiny Dixie cups and recycled take out containers in which home collectors propagated them in, and placed them into 4 inch pots, I am starting to see why these new and rarer selections are so beautiful. They foliage, which can be variegated or tinted, ruffled or pink dappled with green, is beautiful, and they have yet to bloom.

A page from the site Lyndon Lyon, a fine breeder, grower and seller of choice African violets.
"These ain't your grandmother's African Violets"

One can grow African Violets indoors ( not in a greenhouse), for they love the same temperatures that we do - hovering around 70 degrees. There is no trick to success, other than to avoid direct sun in the spring and summer, and to keep the plants constantly moist ( never wet) and never dry, not an easy task to achieve, as one may think - especially in the winter. Many home growers create elaborate wicking devices with twine, yard, thread and vessels of water. I tried this, but I have resorted to judicious watering with a long-tipped funnel watering can, as any cold water splashed onto the leaves, will spot. But don't be afraid of getting water onto the leaves, I give my plants a warm ( tepid) rinse each week in the kitchen sink, just after I pour the tea, plate the biscuits and feed saucers of warms milk to my 12 cats....ahem.

There is so much to write about African Violets, but I will save details about the many new types and floral forms for a later post, but just to entice you - the selection is enourmous- there are miniatures which are teensy, there are new Russian varieties that are spectacular, striped forms, some with flower so large they can be measured in inches, there are some mutated from radiation, there are amazing variegated leaf forms with leaf colors that are pink, yellow and white,  and there are even new yellow flowered varieties - or at least, yellow enough to be considered.......um, yellowish?  For more information, visit the African Violet Society website.


  1. African violets were one of the plants I started growing when I first got into gardening. We must have had about 100 of them growing under grow lights all over the house.

    I haven't grown them in years but I consider them a gateway drug on the path to plant addiction. The ones with really cool leaf variegation and spotted flowers were my favorites.

  2. Oh Kaveh, you nailed it! They are the gateway drug! How funny.

  3. Oh wow, I never knew Saintpaulia was out of fashion, I must keep up with what's in and out!
    I have grown them from time to time in the past, but they all eventually died from too much or not enough water. In my household, the indoor plants need to be tough and resilient!

    Your post made me want to get a new batch and try to keep up the watering regime, so many pretty ones, and I especially like the dark red one at the bottom! I wonder if I can find a mail order company here in Britain who sell them. Must Google...Thanks for all the info!

  4. Great article, Matt! African violets have come a long way since the 1950's and there are a whole slew of new varieties and types to discover. Please make sure you come to Tower Hill in April and visit the Bay State African Violet Society's annual show and sale. You'll see loads of great plants and you can add to your AV collection!

  5. I am all in favor of bringing back African violets, but only after Episcias begin their rise to fame. There's a Gesneriad society down here in Jacksonville, so maybe I'll talk to them.

  6. Anonymous3:03 PM

    What a fun post! It made me interested in trying again. I have killed a few in my time . . .maybe a valentine's gift to myself. Thanks!


  7. I've always loved AVs. They can cheer up north windows which most plants try to avoid.

  8. Anonymous7:49 PM

    Hi I am a 59 year old man. I to have violet fever. My problem is where I love they are hard to find . If any one has any leaves or babies please let me know. Thanks. Jessie

  9. Anonymous8:19 AM

    I love African Violets looking for red and the yellow.

  10. Anonymous10:57 AM

    I've grown AVs for many years.
    Two years ago I moved to the American Southwest, right in the middle of high desert country.
    It's been tricky, but I've figured out how to create a little micro-climate in my office that has suitable light, temperature and, most importantly, humidity. That's the tricky one here at 7,200 feet altitude in the high desert.
    Right now I'm into growing the African Violet's prettier cousin, Streptocarpus, as well. I crossed my two favorite Strep varieties, Keigetsu and Moon Shadow, and the seed pod is ripening on the stalk as we speak.
    I can't wait to see what interesting new varieties I get out of this cross!

  11. Hey, I like your post. I was given a white flowered African Violet one from a friend which has bloomed continuously. If I was anywhere near you, I would share a leaf for rooting. I have this plant in a self watering pot, located on a north windowsill and feed it as I do my orchids. Thanks all. Best of luck.
    Africa Current Events


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