Garden Notes: African violets do well in shade, warm temperature

That brassy, flaming red Christmas poinsettia on the coffee table is starting to get on my nerves.

I can’t wait for it to stop spreading Christmas cheer. It’s no longer “a bright spot of color.” It’s more like a speck in my eye. I need softer colors to go into hibernation for winter. I’m anxious to bring in a few quiet African violets.

African violets (Saintpaulia) were discovered growing wild in Africa in 1893 by Baron Walter von St. Paul. He took a few back to Germany, where they were cultivated and eventually hybridized into thousands of varieties.

African violets are not “true violets,” although the resemblance is striking. A true violet grows outside, in full sun or partial shade, putting down deep roots. I try to miss them with the lawn mower.

African violets wouldn’t survive outdoors in our area. Here, they’re houseplants, with very shallow roots. They want a good amount of light as long as it is in shade.

I have my eye on a miniature Blue Scoundrel with double stars. The dark green foliage has a red back. It’s unique in a quiet way, and the midnight green leaves temper the red beneath.

In their native habitat, they grow under trees and bask in 70 degree temperatures. According to Jim Crockett of “The Victory Garden,” “a combination of partial shade and shirt-sleeve weather is the key to successful African violet culture.”

The leaves of an African violet grow horizontally and, in the right light, will form a rosette.  I’m lucky to have a northeast window positioned to receive a soft bright reflected light in the winter. In summer, I find the violets do well on a porch protected from the sun.

African violets should be watered from the bottom of the pot with warm water. If you water from the top with cold water, the leaves will eventually develop blotches, like permanent goose bumps. They thrive when the soil is uniformly moist, but not saturated for a long time. Saturation deprives the roots of oxygen and creates an opportunity for crown rot disease to develop.

Violets are considered “light feeders.” Feeding an African violet is the reverse of watering it. Fertilize the plants from the top to insure an equal distribution of nutrients in the pot. They need some encouragement, but they don’t need much. They prefer a low steady supply of nutrients from a balanced fertilizer. Over-do it, and the top of the soil will turn white. You can wash away the extra fertilizer by top-watering a number of days in a row.

Given the right conditions, an African violet will bloom almost continually until it’s about four years old. Then, like the rest of us, it will develop a thick stem.

Crockett says, “There’s no way to rejuvenate an old plant — cutting back won’t work — but it’s quite simple to propagate a new one from a leaf of the old.”

Easy for him to say.

Contact Teresa Futrick at