African violets, also known as Saintpaulias, are associated with motherhood, and are a traditional gift to Mom for Mother’s Day. They’re also popular for Valentine’s Day and for Easter.
But what are African violets? Are there different species or varieties, and what might those be? Are they all blue or purple?
Is there a best way to take care of African violets? Are these plants best indoors or outdoors, and what are the differences in their care?
Let’s find out!
Good Products At Amazon For African Violet Care:
- Neem Oil
- Safer Brand Yard & Garden Spray
- Monterey BT
- Botanigard ES
- Garden Safe Slug & Snail Bait
- Beneficial Nematodes
- Bonide Copper Fungicide
Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||African violets,saintpaulias, plus a very wide number of cultivar names|
|Scientific Name||Saintpaulia ionantha, Saintpaulia goetzeana, Saintpaulia inconspicua, Saintpaulia pusilla, Saintpaulia shumensis, Saintpaulia teitensis, Saintpaulia tongwensis, Saintpaulia ulugurensis, Saintpaulia watkinsii|
|Height and Spread||Up to 24 inches tall and wide|
|Light||Bright, indirect light or grow light|
|Water||Room temperature water, just enough to dampen potting soil. Avoid leaving water on leaves.|
|Soil||Extremely well-draining mix of peat moss, perlite, & vermiculite|
|Fertilizer||Balanced fertilizer for overall plant care, higher phosphorous for flowering|
|Pests and Diseases||Thrips, cockroaches, orange-striped oakworm, salt marsh caterpillar, cabbage looper, aphids, whiteflies, cyclamen mite, broad mite, spider mite, scale insects, mealybugs, pill bugs, slugs, springtails, fungus gnats, powdery mildew, root rot, damping off, botrytis cinerea, bacterial soft rot|
All About the African Violet Plant
Native to eastern tropical Africa, the African violet gets its common name from the superficial similarities it has to true violets or violas. In reality, these are all Saintpaulias, but from there it becomes a tangled mass of confusion.
The African Violet Society of America, the largest group dedicated to a single plant type in the world, has more than 16,000 cultivars in their database. Their typically grow in the mountain forests of midwest Africa.
Some African violets look virtually identical to one another, and there is much confusion on the different varieties. However, we do know these are all members of the Gesneriaceae family, which includes just over 150 flowering plants.
With the right amounts of light and dark, African violets flower. There is no specific season in which this occurs. After the flowers fade, the plants produce seeds that help them spread. These can be collected for propagation, but are difficult to germinate.
Types of African Violet Plants
At one point, there were 20 recognized species of African violets. Most of those have been reclassified as Saintpaulia ionantha, as they were deemed too similar to the ionantha species.
As of 2009, there were nine species, eight subspecies, and two varieties of Saintpaulias established. The vast majority of African violets are derived from Saintpaulia ionantha. This species is where hybrids get most of their genetics, and makes up most of the “standard” sized African violets available today.
From there, they divide into subspecies. Velutina, grotei, pendula, nitida, occidentalis, grandifolia, orbicularis, and rupicola are known subspecies of Saintpaulia ionantha. It divides further into varieties and individual cultivars at that point. While Saintpaulia ionantha is the most prevalent, there are still other species of African violets out there!
Other species of African violets include:
- Saintpaulia goetzeana
- Saintpaulia inconspicua
- Saintpaulia pusilla
- Saintpaulia shumensis
- Saintpaulia teitensis
- Saintpaulia tongwensis
- Saintpaulia ulugurensis
- Saintpaulia watkinsii.
Between those less-known species and Saintpaulia ionantha, some 16,000+ cultivars of African violets have been derived, and many consider that an underestimation. There are new cultivars found regularly. What they all have in common is slightly fuzzy leaves in a rounded shape, and the capability to produce flowers reminiscent of true violets.
Wild cultivars have spawned multicolored leaves, flowers edged, streaked, or spattered with with a different color, and nearly every imaginable shade of flower or leaf. No matter which African violet you decide to grow, one thing remains true: their care is similar. Let’s focus on that now!
African Violet Care
Initially, your African violets may seem a bit picky. In reality, they’re just specific as to what they need. If you provide these things, they will blossom and grow quite readily.
Light and Temperature
Lighting your African violets can be tricky until you’ve found the right location. The African violet prefers at least 10-12 hours of bright, indirect light each day, and at least 8 hours of darkness.
If you’re growing yours outdoors, grow African violets in the shade. Too much direct sunlight creates patches of brown on the leaves, causes the leaves to curl downward, and forces variegated-color leaves to turn entirely green. Turn indoor plants regularly to allow for all parts of the plant to receive bright, indirect light.
Outdoor plants may need an added reflector to redirect the light to darker portions of the plant. Something as simple as a white-painted fence behind the plant may provide enough bright, indirect light to keep it healthy. Indoors, a window with western or southern exposure should provide a good amount of light throughout the day. Again, avoid direct sunlight to prevent leaf scorching.
Grow lights are also great for African violets. To be absolutely certain you’ve got the right color range, you can opt to utilize full-spectrum LEDs. I personally like the adaptability of the Viparspectra lights, as you can focus on either flowering or plant growth with a simple flip of the switch.
African violets prefer a temperature range between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit (18-24 degrees Celsius) for optimal blooming and growth. These plants are not very cold-hardy. If conditions drop below 60 degrees F (16 degrees C), your African violet plant may not bloom or may experience slowed growth.
Temperatures below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) can be fatal to your plant. Bring your plants indoors to overwinter them where necessary. Hotter conditions, between 75-90 degrees F (24-35 degrees C), can be survived for short periods of time. Ensure your plants are watered and fertilized and that they have adequate air circulation during these hotter times.
Water and Humidity
Use room temperature water when you water African violets as it won’t shock the plant’s sensitive root structure. Water thoroughly above the growing medium, allowing any excess water to drain through and flow away.
Avoid wetting the leaves directly, especially if they are exposed to sunlight or grow lights afterward. Not only are saintpaulias somewhat susceptible to fungal issues, but a water droplet on a leaf can cause scorching if it’s exposed to light for too long. Blot off the leaves to remove excess moisture.
Err on the side of less when you water African violets if you’re not sure, and only water when the soil is dry to the touch. The ambient humidity African violets prefer is 80%. In the area where you’re growing African violets, you can use a plant humidifier, but avoid misting as it can cause leaf spotting.
Unlike many other plants, African violets grow extremely well in a soilless mix if it’s prepared properly. The vast majority of African violet mixes contain three ingredients: peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite. This keeps the soil moist and helps it drain. In addition, the pH of your mix should be in the 6.4-6.9 range for best growth.
The African Violet Society of America offers this recipe for a soilless mix, using a one-pound coffee can as the measure:
- 3 parts sphagnum peat moss
- 2 parts vermiculite
- 1 part perlite
- 1/4 part ground charcoal
- 2 tablespoons dolomite lime (also called horticultural lime)
- 1 tablespoon bone meal
- 1 tablespoon superphosphate
You can always plant African violets in a pre-made potting mix. If you are going to plant African violets directly in the ground, first ensure that the soil itself is going to be extremely well-draining. Dig a large hole, amend the bottom with extra perlite to provide drainage, and fill the hole with potting mix. Do not plant African violets in hard clay soils that don’t drain well.
African Violet Fertilizer
Before you fertilize, be sure your plant is not showing any signs of over-watering or under-watering. If it is, correct the problem and maintain the plant for a week or two at a healthy range before fertilizing. There are two schools of thought in terms of fertilizer when you’re growing African violets.
I tend to be in the balanced fertilizer camp, and use a water-soluble balanced fertilizer in the 10-10-10 or 20-20-20 range. Mix according to its package directions, and then apply that to the soil (but never the dark green foliage of the plant directly).
The other popular fertilizer method is a high-phosphorous variety that encourages rapid flowering. A 15-30-15 encourages your plant to go crazy with the blooms, and you’ll get tons of color.
If your fertilizer is meant for monthly application, you can fertilize weekly by simply diluting it to a quarter-strength solution. Similarly, if you want to fertilize every two weeks, dilute it down by half of its recommended amount.
Propagating African Violet Plants
African violets can be grown from leaf cuttings, or division. They can also put out sucker shoots on their own (especially the chimera varieties). Finding African violet seeds can be tricky, and so is getting them to germinate properly. The seeds of saintpaulias are very tiny and hard to spread. They prefer a very specific medium to germinate.
Propagating from leaf cuttings is the easiest method, and the best way to ensure you’ll have a clone of your parent plant. Begin by selecting young, healthy leaves that show no signs of damage. Trim through the leaf stem at about a 45-degree angle with the cut side facing upward. You can also remove some of the top of the leaf itself, but no more than 1/3 to 1/2 of the leaf should be removed.
Place your cuttings into a small pot filled with African violet potting mix. Moisten the potting mix once you’ve placed your leaf starts in, and put it under a plastic dome to keep the soil moist. Your young plants will come up from the cut end of the leaf stem. For a visual of this process, check out this video, which shows exactly how it’s done!
If you’ve got lots of leaf starts in a single container, or multiple plants that have grown together, divide them. If you’re careful, you can manage to gain multiple plants this way. African violet stems tend to be fragile, so you will likely break some during this process. Don’t panic, though. The weakest ones are likely older, and need to come off anyway.
Remove your saintpaulia from its pot and identify the individual crowns or rosettes which make up each plant. Gently remove some of the growing medium and carefully pull them apart. Keep roots on each individual crown. Pick between them to re-plant African violets, choosing the strongest-looking ones, or simply all of them.
Repotting African Violet Plants
Most African violets like to be a bit rootbound to flower. Eventually they will outgrow their pot. At this point, you can opt to divide your plant, or simply replant in a larger pot.
To replant the whole plant, select a pot that’s just barely bigger than your existing pot. Gently remove your plant from its old pot and knock off most of the older potting mix, leaving just what the roots are holding onto. Put new potting mix into the new pot, and settle your plant in place.
If your plant is very overgrown and you don’t want to divide it, or it’s started to develop root rot, a more radical procedure can be done during repotting. The video below will walk you through the process. This can save failing plants, so it’s worth knowing!
Pruning African Violets
African violets are some of the easiest plants to prune, as they don’t require any special equipment. Prune when your lower, older leaves are beginning to fade. Simply grasp the leaf stem and bend it to the side. It should break off easily. You’ll likely be removing 2-3 leaves per month from the average indoor plant.
Also important is removing spent flowers. As the flowers begin to fade, they can simply be gently plucked out with your fingertips. This encourages more flower development and keeps the plant healthy.
Provided that you’ve given them what they need when you grow African violets, you shouldn’t have many problems. There are pests and diseases that can develop on these plants. In case you do see these, here’s how to handle them!
Too little sunlight can also be a problem when you grow African violets. This will slow or stop flowering and cause the plant’s dark green leaves to yellow. It may begin to develop elongated leaves or stems to try to stretch out and gain more sunlight. Provide bright, indirect light.
You can over-fertilize African violets. If your plant forms orangish crystals clinging to the plant hairs at the crown, experiences leaf tip-burn, or the leaves or stems have lesions where they rest against your pot, you’re using too much fertilizer.
Leaves that wilt or brown and have a soft jelly-like consistency, or brittle or cracked leaves, can also be signs of overfertilization. These usually happen after an extended period of too regular fertilization, and may take a while to recover. Avoid adding fertilizer for a while.
You’ll notice in the pest and disease sections that I mention neem oil a LOT. It’s a light pesticide and fungicide, it prevents a lot of plant problems, and it’s organic. A buildup of neem oil can cause leaf scorching. The same goes for other fungicides or insecticides. Apply only a super-fine mist. This video shows a technique to thoroughly spray your plants without going overboard.
Thrips love African violet pollen, and eat that as well as visibly abrade the flowers and leaves. Thrips also cause sucking damage, making your plants wilt. Both neem oil and pyrethrin sprays are effective at eliminating thrips. Neem oil keeps them from coming back, and works as a great preventative.
Strange as it may seem, cockroaches are a common pest of African violets. They devour the flowers entirely, and also eat holes through the leaves. As they strike at night, you may never see them at all. Place roach bait or traps near your plants. Create a borax powder to ring around your plant that the roaches won’t cross.
A trio of caterpillars consider African violets to be a target based on opportunity, but prefer other foods. The orange-striped oakworm (Anisota senatoria) nibbles on leaves if it has the chance. The woolly bear or salt marsh caterpillar (Estigmene acrea) munches on African violets. The cabbage looper is interested in violet leaves too.
Hand-pick these off your plants. If necessary, a BT spray is effective at killing off the caterpillars. Neem oil will smother any eggs that may have been laid on your plants. Keep moths away to keep them from returning.
As with so many other plants with moisture-filled leaves, aphids are a risk. So too are whiteflies. Both of these insects cause yellowing and wilting. Use neem oil to spray all plant surfaces to kill off these two pests and prevent their return.
The cyclamen mite is invisible to the naked eye. It causes streaking and blotching on leaves and prevents flowering. Broad mites are common in greenhouse situations. These stunt the plant’s growth and cause deformed leaves and buds. The spider mite is a regular pest in houseplants and greenhouses. All three can be eliminated with neem oil.
Scale insects in general are a problem on African violets, although it seems to be mostly limited to armored scale or mealybugs. The armored scale forms on the undersides of leaves and can be troublesome to remove. Mealybugs attack the roots or the base of the crown. They leave cottony white masses around plant roots.
Use a mycoinsecticide soil drench around your plants to eliminate most root mealybugs. For scale insects or other mealybugs, the same mycoinsecticide can be used on the medium green foliage. Neem oil can prevent all scale and mealy bug insects, as well. Doing weekly sprayings of this should eliminate the chance of infestation.
Various pill bugs nibble on extremely young African violets. They don’t do significant damage to older plants, but they may injure the newly-forming growth. Slugs are opportunistic pests that leave slimy trails while nibbling on plants. Use a bait to get rid of them.
Springtails are a nuisance that feed on decaying organic matter and on fungal growth. These are actually a tiny hexapod rather than an insect. While they won’t feed on your African violets, they may breed around them, especially if there’s fungal growth for them to eat. Springtails may be a sign of other problems, including fungal diseases.
The final pest which materializes around African violets is the fungus gnat. Larvae hide in the soil and cause fungal diseases. Adult fungus gnats can also be disease-carriers, and they lay hundreds of eggs. Use beneficial nematodes to kill off the fungus gnat larvae. Neem oil keeps adults from laying eggs on your plants.
Powdery mildew forms in highly-humid, low-ventilated environments. This white powdery fungal growth develops on the leaves and can spread to other plants if not treated. The naturally-forming azdirachtin in neem oil kills the mildew, and the oil provides some protection against further mildew.
Phytophthora root rot is quite common on African violets. Pythium is another fungal disease that produces similar symptoms to phytophthora. Rescue your plants from either of these two diseases by cutting off all diseased portions of the root and replanting in fresh, sterile potting medium.
Damping off occurs during propagation of a parent plant. This fungal disease causes darkened and dropped ends of leaf or flower stems. It also causes wilting and dying seedlings. Destroy that plant. Do not reuse the potting medium, and sterilize tools or containers that touched the plant before reusing. Avoid overly-moist environments to prevent this fungal infection.
Botrytis cinerea is a common greenhouse fungal disease. It attacks the flowers. Greyish spores form on the flowers and sometimes on the African violet leaves, and it stunts plant growth. Lower the humidity around your plant. Add fans for good airflow. If it still appears, use a copper fungicide to kill off any spores.
Bacterial soft rots cause water-soaked spotting on leaves and wilted, rotting stems. If untreated, they cause plant collapse. Reduce the humidity around your plant to a level no greater than 60%. Keep tools sterilized so you don’t spread the infection to other plants, and don’t reuse potting soil.
Adding nitrogen to your potting mix may help build up resistance to soft rot. Also, spray your plant thoroughly with copper fungicide to kill off the bacteria that causes it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Tell me how to make African violets bloom!
A: Slightly rootbound conditions seem to spur the African violet to produce flowers heavily. Unless your plant starts to wilt or seems super-crowded and lopsided, keep it in a smaller pot to encourage flowering.
If you want your plant to get larger, you can give it more root space. However, it’ll often stop flowering while expanding its size, so plan for it to spend its energy on growth rather than pretty flowers for a bit.
Q: Are African violets hard to care for?
A: They are not! That’s why they are popular as houseplants. Their care needs are fairly similar to that of other houseplants.
Q: How often do African violets need to be watered?
A: Water when the soil is dry to the touch at least an inch below the soil surface. This often occurs once per week.
Q: Should African violets be misted?
A: No. African violets are not like some other tropical house plants that enjoy a daily misting. You don’t need to do this at all.
Q: Should I let African violets dry out between watering?
A: Yes. Let the soil dry between watering to prevent conditions where fungal and bacterial diseases can form.
Q: Why can’t African violets get wet?
A: Not only does cold water shock your African violet leaves, water on the leaves can cause problems with diseases.
Q: Do African violets attract bugs?
A: Yes. Standard houseplant pests like to feed on the leaves and stems of African violets. Thankfully they are easy to control.
Q: Can I use tap water for African violets?
A: You can, but you may not want to. Some tap water contains high amounts of chlorine that can damage your African violet. If you’re not sure about the contents of your local tap water, used distilled water, or set a container of tap water on a countertop for a day before using it. This allows the chlorine to evaporate before you water your plant.