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African Violets: Rethinking ‘America’s Favorite House Plant’ for Modern Times

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African Violets: Rethinking ‘America’s Favorite House Plant’ for Modern Times

April 8, 2019

The African violets discovered in Africa in 1892 by a colonial plantation owner named Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire had clusters of velvety blue flowers. So did all the plants grown from the seeds he sent back to Europe. After they were exhibited the next year at an international horticultural show in Belgium, Saintpaulia ionantha catapulted to fame, becoming a prize flower for houseplant collectors.

Within decades, these humidity-loving houseplants had been hybridized into colors of pink, white, purple, and yellow—and were making themselves at home on top of steamy radiators across America. There they sat like fuzzy-leafed kings, coddled by my grandmother and yours, who pored over the pages of All About the African Violet, America’s Favorite House Plant by Helen Van Pelt Wilson (“author, lecturer, and editor”) in search of tips to keep their finicky flowers in bloom.

By the time a well-worn copy of The African Violet fell into my hands via Etsy seven decades after the book’s publication, African violets were no longer America’s favorite houseplant. But they should be. All they need to thrive is to feel at home.

Photography by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.

Cultivars of S. ionantha have many shapes of flower. Shown above, a pansy type with five petals is reminiscent of the African violets that grew wild in hilly tropical regions of East Africa. Other flower types, developed in the \20th century, include ruffly doubles, fluted petals, frilly petals, cups, and bells.
Above: Cultivars of S. ionantha have many shapes of flower. Shown above, a pansy type with five petals is reminiscent of the African violets that grew wild in hilly tropical regions of East Africa. Other flower types, developed in the 20th century, include ruffly doubles, fluted petals, frilly petals, cups, and bells.

Armed with tips and tricks from Mrs. Van Pelt Wilson, I recently bought five African violets in exuberant bloom and resolved not only to keep them alive but also to keep them in flower. Six weeks in, things are going well. Here are Mrs. Van Pelt Wilson’s secrets, revealed.

My Etsy purchase included a copy of The African Violet (a similar hardcover copy is available for \$8.\26 from eBay) and a second book of tips from \20 African violet experts edited by Mrs. Van Pelt Wilson.
Above: My Etsy purchase included a copy of The African Violet (a similar hardcover copy is available for $8.26 from eBay) and a second book of tips from 20 African violet experts edited by Mrs. Van Pelt Wilson.
The author, one of the best-read gardening writers of the 20th century, tried as best she could to soothe the nerves of anxious houseplant enthusiasts whose African violets refused to bloom: Mrs. Van Pelt Wilson believed her purpose was to “increase the satisfaction and delight of all who grow saintpaulias.”

The main things you need to know to grow African violets successfully are: when to water them, how much sun they need, what kind of soil they like, and how to encourage a long season of blooms.

How to Choose an African Violet

Look closely at the shape of this African violet. It has a single crown; all the stems are growing outward from a central base. This is what you want in an African violet.
Above: Look closely at the shape of this African violet. It has a single crown; all the stems are growing outward from a central base. This is what you want in an African violet.

When shopping for an African violet, don’t buy plants that have suckers (which crowd the plant), side shoots coming out of a main stalk, or multiple crowns grown in the same container. Any of these conditions will hamper the blooming cycle of your plant.

When I opened up my copy of The African Violet, I found notes and tips a previous owner had typed on onion skin.
Above: When I opened up my copy of The African Violet, I found notes and tips a previous owner had typed on onion skin.

How to Increase Humidity Levels

African violets love humidity. In the absence of steam radiators, you can keep yours happy if you put it in a tray on top of a wet gravel bed.
Above: African violets love humidity. In the absence of steam radiators, you can keep yours happy if you put it in a tray on top of a wet gravel bed.

When I water my African violets, water runs out the pots’ drainage holes; I let the plants sit in it while it evaporates. Other ways to increase humidity: “Place open containers of water among the plants,” suggest the experts in one of Mrs. Van Pelt Wilson’s books.

How to Know When to Water

How can you tell if it&#8\2\17;s time to water your African violet? Roll a little bit of soil between your fingers.
Above: How can you tell if it’s time to water your African violet? Roll a little bit of soil between your fingers.

“If it makes a ball, the plant does not need water,” say the experts. “If it is too dry to adhere in a little ball, the plant undoubtedly needs water.”

How to Water an African Violet

Above: Try to avoid getting drops of water on the hairy leaves; they can develop spots of rot if they get wet.

Some experts suggest watering the plant from below: Fill its tray or saucer with water and let the plant draw it up through the pot’s drainage holes.

Personally? I water the plants from above, being careful not to get water on the leaves.

How Often to Fertilize

Feed African violets every two weeks, using a fertilizer that&#8\2\17;s specially blended for them.
Above: Feed African violets every two weeks, using a fertilizer that’s specially blended for them.

A fertilizer formulated specially for African violets will contain equal parts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Ceramic trays like mine are on the Remodelista editors&#8\2\17; list of New Directions: \18 Design Trends for \20\18. For a similar one, consider the White Extra Large Tray handmade in England; \$3\25 from March.
Above: Ceramic trays like mine are on the Remodelista editors’ list of New Directions: 18 Design Trends for 2018. For a similar one, consider the White Extra Large Tray handmade in England; $325 from March.
Looking for more about African violets? See our curated guide to Houseplants 101, especially African Violets: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design. Read more:

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various houseplants with our Houseplants: A Field Guide.

Additionally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for violets with our Violets: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.

Interested in other tropical plants for your garden or indoor space? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various tropical plants with our Tropical Plants: A Field Guide.

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