The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Fascinating African Violets

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Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Tell a kid not to touch an object of their fascination and destiny will surely bring object and kid together. Maybe we should tell kids not to touch broccoli or bicycles? The object of my kid fascination? My grandmother's African violets. She grew these gargantuan African violets staged along sun-soaked windows. Each leaf and flower was delicately backlit like a jewel in a ring box. I marveled at the sapphire blue flowers encircled by a necklaced collar of furry emerald leaves. As years accumulated so did the number of African violets I cultivated. The African violet fascination bug also bit my amazing sister Carolyn. I've inherited her collection of plant jewels. I think of her and my grandmother every time I enjoy their sparkle.

The history of African violets as greenhouse plants goes back to 1892 when seeds were retrieved from the wooded Usambara Mountains of present day Tanzania. An African violet frenzy began in the 1920's and 30's as new breeding programs exploded. The Optimara® trademark, launched in 1977, continues to bring innovation to African violets.

Besides offering diversity in flowers and leaves, new African violet cultivars are easier to grow and are bejeweled with more flowers. Flower colors include a wide array as well as bicolors, multicolors and fantasy markings of splashes and freckles. Yellow or true red colored flowers have proven elusive to date. Flowers shapes include bell, wasp and star. Flowers may be single or double petaled and fringed or frilled. African violet leaves also command center stage with their variegation, scallops, curls, quilts, ruffles and frills. Plant sizes range from large to the "oh so cute" miniatures.

African violets have even been in space. In 1984 Optimara® launched 25,000 African violet seeds into space aboard one of NASA's space shuttles. The seeds remained in space in the Long Duration Exposure Facility orbiting the Earth for nearly six years. As a direct outcome of their space travels, Optimara® developed the EverFloris® Violet known for their abundance of flowers and non-stop blooming with as many as 20 blooms instead of the typical 5 to 7.

New cultivars generally bloom regularly throughout the year. Some cultivars need a short rest period between blooming. If violets do not bloom, it's likely a problem with location and care.

Here are a few tips:

Keep plants evenly moist with lukewarm water. It is best to water from below using a saucer, pebble tray or wicking system. Pebble trays (flat containers filled with water and pebbles) also provide the high humidity African violets love. Keep water off the leaves since cold water can cause leaf spot. It's best not to use softened or highly chlorinated water. Soil should not be sloppy soggy or desert dry. Dry soil is a common reason for African violet bloom failure.

Soil should be well-drained. Soilless potting mixes work well.

African violets are warmth lovers so temperatures should be about 72 degrees F. Temperatures should not go below 60 or above 80.

Insufficient light is probably the number one reason violets fail to bloom. East facing windows are great with their bright but indirect light. African violets grow well under fluorescent lights suspended 12 to 18 inches above the plants, especially during the winter. Leave lights on no more than 16 hours a day. A nearby fluorescent reading lamp will also help to keep violets blooming in winter.

Fertilize violets regularly with a 14-12-14 analysis water-soluble fertilizer. Avoid any fertilizers containing urea. Check label for recommended intervals and rates. Many growers fertilize with each watering.

Despite this list of do's and don'ts, African violets can be long-lived beauties sure to fascinate kids and adults. Locally check out the Margaret Scott African Violet Society to join more African violet fans. The African Violet Society of America and Illinois African Violet Society are also great sources of information.

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