This column was previously printed in the March 5, 2002, issue of CAPPER'S.
Books have been written about growing them, and they have their own special potting soils and fertilizers. This could intimidate a gardener attempting to grow Saintpaulia ionantha. However, after all is said and done, African violets are one of the easiest houseplants to care for.
In their native habitat of East Africa, they are found growing in the fissures of rocks that have accumulated soil high in organic matter. When you think about that, you can understand why an African violet needs to be planted in a light, airy soil that promotes good drainage.
Although numerous potting soils on the market were developed for African violets, I use the same soilless mix my other plants are potted in. Most potting mixes will work, as long as they drain well. The most common failure in growing violets is crown and root rot, which is induced by wetness.
I can remember hearing as a child that African violets had to be watered from the bottom. This is a misconception. Violets can be watered from the top or the bottom. However, if they are watered from the top, care should be taken not to spray the leaves with water. Cold-water droplets on the foliage will cause bleached spots to appear on the leaf. While the spots are not aesthetically pleasing, they cause no real physical harm to the plant. Whichever method of watering is preferred, keep the soil moist - but not wet.
Perhaps the violet's greatest cultural attribute is its ability to thrive in lower light situations than that of other houseplants. Violets are known for blooming in a north or east window. I could quote the scientific numbers of how many hours of lumens are required for good health, but you don't need to know that. A good rule of thumb is: If the leaves are thin and have long stems, the plant is not receiving enough light; if the plant is compact and not vigorous, it is probably getting too much light. The foliage can scorch if the plant is placed in direct sunlight.
The water-soluble fertilizer you use on other houseplants is fine to use on African violets. Fertilizing every four to six weeks is sufficient to keep the plant healthy. I don't see the need to store 10 different fertilizer formulations for 12 different types of plants. A general purpose fertilizer works well on most plants.
Besides tolerating low light, African violets also tolerate the lower humidity levels we find in our homes with forced-air heat. They can withstand a wide range of temperatures. Violets will perform well in temperatures that dip to 60 degrees at night or reach 85 degrees during the day. The mid-60 degrees I keep my home in the winter is the biggest detriment to many of my houseplants, yet it doesn't seem to affect the violet.
The cultural requirements of the plant make it a winner in my home, and to top off its fine qualities, it's easy to propagate. As easy as this plant is to start, everyone should share his or her favorite plant with a friend. Simply cut off a leaf with a section of the petiole. Run warm water over the stem and place it in wet sand. Like other plants I start, I place a clear plastic bag over the container. This acts like a miniature greenhouse and keeps the humidity level high. In about six weeks, you should have three to four new leaves on the plant. Then it's ready to be moved to a new home.
Don't let all of the African violet hoopla intimidate you. They are easy plants to grow, and I don't use any specialized products. I've never won any ribbons for them at the fair, but I enjoy them just the same.