African violets make great houseplants

KENNEWICK -- When I was a little girl, I can remember my grandmother growing African violets on her windowsills and on plant stands with fluorescent lights.

They were pretty much the perfect houseplant because they didn't get too big and they produced pretty flowers for months. I also remember her showing me how easy it was to start a new plant by just sticking a leaf in some water until it developed roots.

African violets were one of the most popular houseplants for many years. Their horticultural history dates back to the 1800s, when two British plant explorers, Sir John Kirk and the Rev. W. E. Taylor, discovered the African "violet" and sent specimens back to England in 1884 and 1887. However, these specimens weren't in good enough condition for scientific study and naming.

When Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire discovered the same plant in 1892 in Tanzania, he sent some seeds to his father in Germany. An amateur botanist, his father was able to grow the plant from seed and the resulting plant's genus was named 'Saintpaulia' in honor of the baron.

An undemanding houseplant, it didn't take long for the African violet to find its way into the hearts and hands of enthusiasts around Europe and the world.

By the late 1920s, there already were a number of violet-, purple- and blue-colored flowered cultivars available to gardeners. Since then, professional and amateur plant breeders have developed hundreds of cultivars with all sorts of flower colors, forms and sizes, as well as leaves of varying colors, shapes and sizes.

African violets still are available, but they are not anywhere near as popular as they once were. I wonder why? They are so easy to grow, especially if you know what they need for good growth and prolonged bloom.

First, they need a lot of indirect bright light. In homes, you often find this on the sills of windows with an eastern exposure. Direct sunlight will damage leaves, so be sure they aren't exposed to full direct sun. If you don't have adequate windowsill space, you can grow African violets on plant stands with artificial fluorescent lighting that provide red and blue light spectrums. It's important that the plants get at least eight hours of darkness each night or else they won't bloom.

Second, they do best with a potting mix that's well-drained and composed mostly of peat moss, perlite and vermiculite. African violets don't do well with poorly aerated heavy or dark potting soils that have compost as a major component.

Along with a quality potting soil, watering is a critical factor. African violets are sensitive to overwatering and underwatering. While African violet enthusiasts argue about watering from the top of the pot or the bottom, the important thing is to use room temperature water and keep the water off the leaves. Maintain a moderately moist potting soil by watering when the top inch of soil feels dry.

African violets do well with temperatures of 65 to 80 degrees and will be injured if the temperature drops below 50 degrees. If your plants are on a window sill during the winter, beware that they may be hurt when temperatures go extremely low outside. If cold weather threatens, you will want to move them somewhere else during frigid spells.

You know, it's been a long time since I've had African violets growing on my windowsill. I think I'll give them a try again. How about you?

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.