African violets were introduced to the western world in 1892 by Baron Walter von St. Paul, governor of a Tanganyika province, who discovered them growing in shaded rocky ledges of the Usambara Mountains. The baron sent seeds of the plant back to his botanist father in Germany, where it acquired the botanical name of Saintpaulia. Other related species were quickly discovered, all bearing the Saintpaulia genus name plus an adjective for the individual species.
Over twenty wild species and variants have been found and, although all wild species have blue-violet blossoms, their other characteristics vary. Confounded botanists expressed their frustration with names like Saintpaulia difficilis, confusa and inconspicua. The original plant is Saintpaulia ionantha.
African violets traveled to North America in 1926, courtesy of a California firm that imported seeds from German and British greenhouses. Varieties from these first batches of seed are still grown today but highly diverse modern varieties are the result of hybridization and more than a century of trials and experimentation.
Wine-reds, whites and pinks appeared early in plants grown from seed in Germany but American hybridizers have been developing color variations since the 1930’s, adding coral pink, coral red, and most recently, yellow. Miniatures, new foliage shapes and colors and trailing plants have been developed without sacrificing bloom or beauty.
Newer cultivars with double rows of petals or bi-colored flowers are gaining popularity, but the African violet most often found in kitchen windows is still Saintpaulia ionanatha, the low, compact plant with dark green leaves and single flowers.
Kept in good condition, African violets will flower almost continuously.
Successful gardeners recommend a soil mixture of two parts fertile loam, one part peat, and one part sand or perlite-or a pasteurized soil-less mix. Porous soil allows excess water to pass through readily.
African violets should be potted with the crown set just above the surface and soil firmly pressed around it. Good soil drainage prevents decay at the crown or leaf base. A saturated soil mix leads to top growth and root rots.
African violets produce seeds, but they are incredibly tiny and the beautiful hybrids don’t run true from parent to seed. Leaf propagation is the usual procedure. Water rooting isn’t recommended because the roots are very weak and must be totally replaced by the plantlets at transplantation.
To propagate, take a leaf from the middle rows of the parent plant. Leaves from the outer layer won’t provide many plantlets and those close to center are too immature. Snap off the leaf close to the base of the stem. Then take a clean, sharp knife and cut the stem about 1-1/2 inches from the base of the leaf at a 45 degree angle to the stem so the cut surface faces the same direction as the top surface of the leaf.
Medium or coarse grade vermiculite and perlite mixed with a little activated charcoal is an excellent rooting medium. Fill a small pot with moistened medium, make a hole for the leaf and tamp the medium around it. Keep evenly moist with fertilized water solution and a clump of plantlets will develop in six to eight weeks.
A plantlet is ready to pot when it has four clearly developed leaves. Put each plantlet in its own pot of soil. A sharp knife can be used but many gardeners just use their fingers. Make certain each plantlet takes its own root system.
African violets like temperatures of about 60° F at night and up to 80°F during the day. The plants get stunted at cool temperatures and, in hot weather, are especially susceptible to rot. They require good light, artificial or natural, but not direct sunlight.
Keep soil moist, and foliage dry. Water drops cause disfiguring spots on leaves, so water from the top or bottom. Using a weak solution of a balanced fertilizer, like 20-20-20, at every watering will encourage frequent blooming.
Excessive watering, the bane of African violets, leads to root or crown rot in plants of all ages. Badly diseased plants should be destroyed, their containers cleaned and disinfected before reuse. Favorite plants may sometimes be saved by removing the rotted portion well above the line of decay and rerooting the plant in sterile medium.
For a well groomed African violet, gently remove household dust with a soft, natural bristle brush, like a sable artist’s brush. The blunt ends of artificial bristles can injure leaf surfaces. Remove dead or dying foliage and blossoms. Remove the fading outer leaves for a better looking plant and rotate the plant one-quarter turn at each watering for even growth.
The Usambara mountain range, original home of African violets, has the richest biodiversity in Africa, nearly matching the Galapagos Islands in floral diversity. But, because of extensive forest clearance, the ionantha’s natural habitat in what is now Tanzania has vanished. From a world view to a window sill, the delicate blue flower is looking at extinction from habitat loss.