African violets are compact, pretty house plants that produce clusters of jewel-like flowers on and off throughout the year. They have soft, velvety green leaves that are often burgundy on the undersides. While the flowers look like violets, they're not related to them. They're often sold by their botanical name Saintpaulia, but have recently been incorporated into the Streptocarpus genus.
African violets were popular house plants in the 1960s and 1970s and therefore might be considered a little old fashioned. But they've come a long way since then, and a new generation of house plant fans are falling for them once more.
Recent breeding (especially in Russia and Ukraine) has introduced lots of new flower colours, including coral, dusky red, green, ivory and yellow. There are also lots of new flower forms, including ruffled, bell-shaped, star-shaped, double or fringed blooms that may be bi-coloured, multi-coloured or splashed. Even the foliage has become more interesting, and you can now find pointed, scalloped, serrated, ruffled or variegated leaves. Some varieties are teacup-sized while others are larger, and some varieties have a trailing habit.
African violets are very good value, especially if you buy them as plug plants. They're very collectable and look good grouped together. They have a reputation for being a little tricky to grow, but with the right care and conditions they will thrive.
How to grow African violets
African violets are native to tropical East Africa, which gives plenty of clues about their care – they need bright light, warmth and humidity. Water very carefully with a small watering can, or better still, water from below. Allow any excess water to drain away afterwards as cold, wet compost can cause root rot. Remove spent flowers and foliage promptly and take care not to splash any water on the leaves when watering – this can cause problems such as grey mould.
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African violets: jump links
- Planting African violets
- Caring for African violets
- Propagating African violets
- Growing African violets: problem-solving
- Buying African violets
- Best African violets to grow
Where to grow African violets
African violets need plenty of bright light and need to be within 30cm of a window. Make sure they're out of direct sunshine, however, as this will scorch the leaves – a north or east facing spot can be ideal. African violets need warmth (no less than 15°C) and suffer in draughts. They also need humidity – stand on a saucer of moist pebbles or put in a room that gets plenty of moisture, such as a bathroom or kitchen.
How to plant African violets
Plant in a small pot with drainage holes in the bottom, in house plant or specialist African violet compost. Repot into a slightly larger pot once the rootball is beginning to outgrow the pot. Too large a pot will encourage the growth of leaves at the expense of flowers; African violets do best in a pot that is around one-third the diameter of their leaf span.
Caring for African violets
Water only when the top 2-3cm of compost has dried out. Avoid splashing water on the leaves when watering – use a small watering can and be very careful or better still, water the plant from below by standing the pot in a dish or saucer for half an hour. Use tepid water and let any excess drain away afterwards.
Feed once a month with a weak high-potash feed in spring and summer to encourage flowers. Deadhead spent flowers or any dead leaves promptly.
Do not mist the leaves of your African violet – while it needs humidity, wet leaves will cause problems. It's better to put your plant in a humid room, or to stand it on a saucer of moist pebbles.
Use a soft paintbrush to clean off compost or dust if necessary.
How to propagate African violets
The easiest way to propagate African violets is by leaf cuttings in spring – either in small, individual pots or in a seed tray.
- Remove a mature leaf from the plant, with the stalk attached. With a knife, slice the stalk at a 45° angle.
- Make a hole in the compost with a dibber or pencil and insert the leaf stalk so that the base of the leaf just touches the compost
- Water in well, allowing any excess water to drain away. Cover with a clear plastic bag and place in a warm, bright spot, out of direct sun
- After a month or so, you should see tiny new plants at the base of the leaf. Remove the cover, and when the plants have increased in size a little, pot up into individual small pots.
Growing African violets: problem solving
The main cause of this is lack of light – ensure your African violet is no more than 30cm from a window. While African violets can bloom throughout the year, they often stop flowering in winter, when light levels are lower. Move your plant to a brighter spot at this time. Lack of flowers can also be caused by too large a pot – African violets perform best when their roots fit snugly in a pot. Also check that the room is warm enough and that you are feeding correctly.
Yellow leaves could be due to dry air, too much sun or incorrect watering or feeding – so check your care regime.
Wilting can be caused by over or underwatering. If the soil feels soggy, you have overwatered. Allow the soil to dry out before watering again. If the plant doesn't recover, it may have root rot, caused by cold, wet compost – this can be fatal to the plant.
Grey fluff on the leaves is grey mould (botrytis), which can occur in cool, crowded or damp conditions and is often a result of water splashing the leaves when watering. Remove any affected areas and treat with a fungicide.
White powdery leaves
White powder on the leaves is powdery mildew. This is caused by humid conditions and poor airflow. Treat with an organic fungicide or remove affected leaves. Increase the space around your plants.
White fluffy spots
White fluffy spots on the undersides of leaves are mealybugs. Deal with the problem promptly by removing affected leaves and spray with an organic spray based on fatty acids.
Brown patches on leaves
Brown or pale brown patches on the leaves could be sunburn – move your plant out of direct sunlight. Brown spots can also be caused by watering with cold water.
White streaks or spots
Whitish streaks or spots could be due a combination of water droplets on the foliage and the sun's rays – always water from beneath
Edges of the leaves curling indicate that the temperature is too low
Advice on buying African violets
- Make sure you can provide the right conditions for an African violet – they need bright light, warmth and humidity
- You can often find African violets at the garden centre, but for the best selection, buy from a specialist retailer
- African violets are often sold as plug plants – small plants that you can pot up and grow on at home. These are excellent value
Where to buy African violets online
African violets to grow
- Saintpaulia 'Pixie Pink' – delicate, pale pink flowers
- Saintpaulia 'LE-Macho' –semi-double, frilled blooms that are dark purple with a white edge
- Saintpaulia 'Buffalo Hunt' – ruffled red flowers
- Saintpaulia 'The Madam' – a trailing variety with pale pink flowers
- Saintpaulia 'Flashy Trail' – lavender bell-shaped flowers
- Saintpaulia 'Vallarta Campanas Moradas' – deep purple, bell-shaped flowers and a trailing habit
- Saintpaulia 'Chantaspring' – bell-shaped, butter-yellow flowers and pointed, semi-trailing foliage
- Saintpaulia 'Pink Mint' – light pink, star-shaped ruffled flowers with semi-trailing foliage