Mad about Violets

There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to African violets. Some people love them and have a perfect knack with getting the plants to thrive, grow, flower and propagate. Others dislike the plants as old-fashioned, boring, challenging and irascible (if a plant can be described as being irascible), something they see for sale at the supermarket, bring home on a whim, and watch slowly die through incorrect care.

Where do you fall in this discussion? I happen to really like African violets, although at present I have only half a dozen plants, most of them in the kitchen windows, so Iím no aficionado. I also like other members of the Gesneriad family of flowering plants including the gloxinia and the Cape primrose or streptocarpus. Their velvety jewel-toned flowers and fuzzy leaves charm me, although itís the ability of the leaves to attract cat hair more easily than do black pants that keeps me from having too many gesneriads of any sort.

If you didnít notice, I slipped a wee bit of botany into that last paragraph. The truth of the matter is that African violets are from Africa, but they arenít related to those violets that pop up in our gardens and woodlands every spring. The proper name is to refer to the plants as saintpaulias, (after their botanical name, Saintpaulia ionantha) but no one will give you grief for calling them African violets, least of all the societies that use that name in their titles.

Look at the plant information tag that comes with the 4-inch pots of violets found in every grocery store, florist shop, and nursery around the region. The tags are dismally uninformative, giving bland recommendations like medium light and water requirements. The last plants I bought, amazingly had written on their labels ďDo not consume.Ē I canít say that Iíve ever seen anyone try to chow down on an African violetóeven our cats donít do more than shed on them.

On the other hand, you can get really overwhelmed really quickly if you happen to land on the African Violet Society of Americaís website, (www.avsa.org) with that condition known as too much information. Exact mixtures of soil, artificial lights or not, watering from the saucer only, watering into the pot, fertilizer types, hybridsÖit gets a little dizzying.

Itís said that African violets make good houseplants because the light and heat conditions in an average home suit them just fine. They prefer at least 12 hours of light a day, but not direct sunlight, so donít put them in a south-facing window. Too much light will make the leaves pale in colour; too little will make for smaller leaves with long petioles (leaf stems.) The plants are happy with daytime temperatures around 20 degrees C, a little cooler at night, but will tolerate higher temperatures during the day.

The most important part of African violet care has to do with watering. They like an evenly moist soil, but donít leave them standing in water, or with soggy soil, or they will rot. You donít have to water them from the saucers but do use tepid water and water carefully into the pots without splashing on the plants. Cold water left on the leaves will cause ugly, mottled spots to develop on them. If you have chlorinated water, try filling your watering can a few hours before watering, to let the chlorine evaporate and also bring the water temperature up to room temperature.

To keep them flowering, violets do need to be fed regularly. You can purchase fertilizer that is formulated for African violets, or simply use whatever you have on hand, but at a quarter of the recommended strength.

African violet fanciers are always developing new colours and forms of flowers, as well as gorgeous variegation in foliage colour. While there are no black, truly yellow, or orange violets, there are flowers in just about every other colour, or in multiple colours, and new colour forms are always being unveiled. A supermarket or department store is only likely to have a half dozen or maybe a dozen different colours; in order to find really unusual flower forms and colours, youíll need to join a society or look for a good greenhouse that brings in a nice variety.

Just remember not to eat your plants.