Lowenfels: Today's African violets are far cry from finicky flowers of yore

Jeff Lowenfels

You just can't beat African violets when it comes to great all-around houseplants. Unfortunately, for so many hobby gardeners who are forced to spend the winter indoors, they are underappreciated. They are considered old-fashioned. They have a reputation for being finicky. You could fool me.

First, there are new introductions every year. These vary in leaf size and texture as well as flower size, color and texture. There are African violets for every size and taste these days that were unheard of in their heyday. But strength has been breed into these new introductions. The finicky have been weeded out. These are not your great-grandmother's plants.

What prompts my little burst of enthusiasm for a plant that never quite seems to make it to the top of the "it" list, is the presence of an absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous one sitting on our dining room table. It's been there for a couple of months, enduring natural light (such as it has been) and the artificial lighting (including a few nights where the lights were left on overnight). This, plus really, really random waterings (depending on which of us happens to see that it needs help), no fertilizer and surely no other special care would seemingly result in a pretty sad looking specimen for a breed with a reputation for finickiness.

Yet there it sits. It is early February and it is in full, glorious bloom with 25 or so deep purple flowers with brilliant-yellow internal organs, each perfectly set several inches above the center of the deep green leaf spiral. It has been in bloom for weeks too and if I just keep picking the spent blossoms off, it might go on for a few weeks longer.

The secret, I believe is simply leaving the plant alone; not moving it from place to place. Once it adjusts, it will settle in and do what plants do. Yes, regular, supplemental light would help it bloom quicker and you might enjoy the plant more, it being more visible, but these really are now considered tough plants and can take quite a bit. Just let them get acclimated by not moving them around. Leave them be.

OK. Sure you have to water African violets before the soil dries and they don't like to sit in water after you do. A good soaking and then draining is a good idea. And it is true their leaves will spot if you get cold water on them. Let water get to room temperature or warmer before you do water.

Even the idea of buying specialized potting soil for African violets, which practically every manufacturer of soil sells, isn't really necessary. All you need is a rich potting soil that drains well. Add some Perlite or sand to yours if it doesn't. If there are enough organics in the mix, you won't have to fertilize often. Your plants will tell you when the soil needs feeding.

Again, I know there are many who associate African violets with their grandmothers. (I happened to be happily married to one!) African violets were popular back in the day because they were so easy to maintain and to propagate. If you said something nice about a someone's African violet, you would be given a leaf to take home to grow your own.

All you need is a leaf with its stalk. Fill a glass with water and then cover the top with wax paper. Tape or a rubber band will keep the paper in place. Insert the leaf into the water through a hole made in the paper. In a few weeks the stem produces roots and then little, tiny plants appear. Once big enough, you can plant these is an appropriate mix.

To start, however, you need a mother plant. Find a friend's or, better yet, visit any local nursery, supermarket or box store indoor plant section. You will find plenty of African violets. Try one. They are a lot easier than you remember.


Jeff Lowenfels' is author of "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web."

Garden calendar

Alaska Peony Growers Winter Conference: Feb. 14 and 15 in Fairbanks. The conference includes a new and intermediate growers school. Peony growing can be big business here. Learn more at alaskapeonies.org.


Pelargoniums: AKA "geraniums" that have been wintered over as house plants should be shaped so they grow appropriately for spring and summer use. Let cuttings air for 48 hours and then root, if you want more plants, in damp sand or Perlite.


Start: Sweet peas by nicking the seed cover and rolling and keeping seed in damp paper towels until they root. I like to soak ours in a warm water overnight. I use a thermos bottle. Check out reneesgarden.com for a great selection of seed.


Alaska Botanical Garden: Join and learn how to reserve a seat at the annual Spring Conference at alaskabg.org.


Jeff Lowenfels