Saturday, February 14, 2009

African Violets: The Pet Plant



Meet Mabel, the newest addition to the Dirty Radish family. My mom had a roomful of these things when I was growing up. Some people collect them.

Houseplants, especially African violets, are like pets. I mean, you feed them, water them, watch them grow, name them...er... maybe that last one is just me! :)

Some say African violets are hard to grow. Some say they are fussy. I say they are the perfect plant for anyone that forgets to water plants. If there's one thing African violets hate with every leaf of their being it's too much water. But I'm getting ahead of myself. To learn more about these lovely plants, I did a little research. This is what I found:

Are African Violets from Africa?
Yes! East Africa. Think Kenya & Tanzania.

So, If They're from Africa, How Can They Survive Inside My Home?
Sure, when you think of Kenya you think of hot, sunny weather. But that's not the part of Kenya & Tanzania African violets grow! They grow in the forests, especially in the East Usambara Mountains. Forest + mountain = cooler, shadier habitat than the stereotypical Kenya.

What Do African Violets Need to Survive?
For light, they need part sun. Completely in shade or very low light they will likely survive, but they won't flower. For water, they don't like being wet. So, to go along with the pet analogy, African violets are kittens. These are NOT the type of plants you need to constantly water; let them dry out. Ignore them for a bit. When the top soil seems dry and the leaves are a little wilted, your African violet is thirsty.

How Do I Water It Without Killing It?
Drowning is the most common cause of death for African violets. There are 2 ways to water them: carefully from the top or gently from the bottom. I say "carefully" from the top because you don't want to get the leaves or crown of the plant wet or it may rot.

If you want to water from the bottom, fill your kitchen sink with a few inches of water. Place your African violet pot in the sink & let sit for 30 minutes. Remove & let drain on a saucer. Discard any water that drains into the saucer.

Personally? I am a careful top water-er. But whatever method you choose, don't use ice cold water. If you wouldn't want to take a bath in it, neither would your cat-like African violet. Room temperature, warm or tepid water is much better.

What About Soil? Stuff From the Backyard OK?
No, not really. Especially in Virginia where backyard = clay soil. You need a well draining soil because, remember, they HATE being wet. Like a cat. Most nurseries sell African violet potting soil but I've used "regular" potting soil and it turned out OK.

So...is that it?
Almost. Your African violet needs food. Those potting mixes don't contain a lot of nutrients and you don't want to starve the poor thing! There are numerous African violet fertilizers on the market. Use as directed or do a half- or quarter-dose each time you water. But don't OD your African violet on fertilizer. Too much of a good thing is bad (ever had a hangover from those fruity tasting martinis? Then you know what I mean).

And, one last thing, if your home has ridiculously dry air (probably only happens during the winter), you may need up up the humidity around your African violet. You can either place little saucers around the plant (as the water evaporates, it will create humidity) *or* get a rimmed tray larger than the saucer your African violet sits on, put some stones or gravel on it, place your African violet (which is on top of a saucer) on the rocks, and water the rocks. Essentially, you've made a rock sandwich: rocks between a tray & your African violet. This second method is like the first, it just takes up less counter space.

And, that's all you need to know about keeping an African violet alive! Someday I'll trying cloning little Mabel. And it's not as hard, or creepy, as it sounds...

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