- Compact, flowering houseplant
- Can flower all year round
- Position in bright, indirect light
- Water and feed regularly and carefully
- Like consistently warm, humid air
- Grow new plants from leaf cuttings
What are African violets?
These small tender perennials come originally from tropical East Africa. They have long been grown as flowering houseplants, prized for their bright, cheery blooms and velvety leaves. They can flower for many months if given the correct light levels, humidity and watering.
African violets are small, inexpensive and available in a wide choice of flower colours and forms, so it’s easy to create an interesting and varied collection. Being compact and low growing, individual plants are easy to accommodate, even when indoor space is limited.
Until recently, African violets were known botanically as Saintpaulia, but have now been reclassified into the genus Streptocarpus, along with Cape primroses. However, their former name is still widely used.
Houseplants: to support human health
How and what to buy
There is a huge diversity of flower colours and forms, including single and double flowers, large and small, with smooth or ruffled petals. These may be one colour or several, from violet through mauves, pinks, ruby reds and white, with yellow anthers in the centre.
Plug plants should be potted up as soon as they are delivered. Choose a pot that is only slightly larger than the rootball, to avoid problems with overpotting.
Plant into a light, free-draining compost mix, ideally two-thirds John Innes No 2 compost and one-third fibrous peat substitute, such as coir. Alternatively, use a general houseplant compost or a specialist compost for African violets.
Handle plants very gently, picking them up by a sturdy leaf while also supporting the rootball.
Firm the plants into their new pot. Make sure they are sitting in the compost at the same level they were previously growing.
Water carefully to settle the compost around the roots. Take care not to wet the plant, only the compost.
African violets need plenty of bright light, but keep them out of the direct sun (especially in summer) or filter it with a thin curtain. The strong sun can scorch the leaves, while too little light (either low intensity or short duration) can reduce or halt flowering.
- From spring to autumn – position on a north- or east-facing windowsill
- In winter – due to lower light levels and shorter days, you can move them to a south- or west-facing windowsill
African violets need at least ten hours of light and eight hours of darkness daily for sustained flowering. To boost light levels and day length in winter (to encourage flowering), you could consider using grow lights.
Provide a temperature of 18–24°C (65–75°F) by day and 16°C (60°F) by night, all year round. Keep plants out of cold draughts and avoid sudden changes in temperature.
Houseplants: choosing the best place
- Use water at room temperature – cold water straight from the tap may chill these sensitive plants
- Water regularly, but wait until the surface of the compost is dry before watering
- Avoid wetting any part of the plant when watering, as this can lead to mould or rot, which can kill the plant. Splashing water on the leaves will also mark them
- Take care to direct the water onto the compost, or water from below by standing the container in a tray of water for half an hour
- African violets are very susceptible to rotting if watered too much or left standing in damp compost
- Both overwatering and underwatering can reduce or prevent flowering
Water: collecting, storing and re-using
- African violets dislike dry air, so stand the container in a saucer of damp gravel. Keep the water level just below the surface of the gravel, so the roots aren’t constantly wet
- Low humidity can stop flowering and lead to slow growth
- Don’t mist the plants, as this will mark the leaves and encourage mildew and mould
To encourage flowering, you can apply a dilute liquid houseplant feed every three to four weeks in spring and summer, following the instructions on the pack. Alternatively, you can use a fertiliser specifically formulated for African violets.
Fertiliser labels explained
Plant nutrition: feeding plants
- Plants usually need re-potting into a slightly larger container every two to three years, in spring.
- Use peat-free houseplant compost or specialist compost for African violets. Alternatively, make your own light, free-draining compost using a 2:1 mix of John Innes No 2 compost to fibrous peat substitute, such as coir.
- Take care not to plant them in an overly large or deep container, as this can deter flowering. Choose one that is only slightly larger than the rootball. The maximum pot size is usually 10cm (4in) in diameter, but for very large plants you could use a shallow 12cm (5in) pot or pan
Remove fading flowers regularly to keep the display looking its best and encourage the plant to produce more.
Pinch off individual spent flowers, then once the last flowers on a stem have faded, snip off the whole stem at the base. Use small, sharp scissors or snips.
Pruning and training
Remove any fading leaves or spent flower stems regularly, at the base. Use small pointed snips or scissors, for accurate cuts.
No other pruning or training is required.
African violets can be propagated in several ways. The easiest and quickest methods are to take leaf cuttings and divide clumps. The resulting plants will be exactly the same as the parent.
You can also grow new plants from seeds, either bought or collected from your own plants. Producing your own seeds allows you to grow unique plants, as they will all be slightly different from their parents. You can also produce plants in great quantity. However, it is a slower process, with seeds taking six months or more to ripen, and the resulting plants taking another six months or so to flower.
By leaf cuttings
African violets grow readily from leaf cuttings in spring.
- Choose leaves that are almost full size and remove them with the stalk attached
- Fill pots with free-draining compost, such as seed and cuttings compost, or mix equal quantities of peat-free multipurpose compost and sharp sand or perlite
- Insert the leaf stalk into the compost so the base of the leaf just touches the surface
- Water, and allow to drain
- Place pots in a propagator or cover with a clear plastic bag, and provide bright but not direct light. Keep at 18°C (65°F)
- New plants should form at the base of the leaf in four to five weeks. At this point, remove the lid or plastic bag and allow them to grow on. Pot up individually once they have several leaves
African violets tend to form additional crowns, or rosettes, over time, and these can be detached from the mother plant and potted up separately to create new plants:
- Gently remove the clump of plants from the pot
- Carefully pull away from the additional crowns, each with as many roots as possible
- Pot up each new plant individually and return the main plant to its original container
Established plants may also produce suckers, which are new plants that grow on a short stalk from the main plant. Wait until the new plant has rooted into the compost, then simply detach it from the main plant and pot it up individually. Suckers drain energy from the mother plant, so it is beneficial to remove them
You can grow African violets from bought seeds or from seeds produced by your own plants.
To ensure your plants produce seeds, it is best to pollinate the flowers by hand. This also allows you to choose the parents, in the hope that the offspring will have the best characteristics of each.
Hand-pollinating African violets is a fiddly but rewarding process:
- Remove several tiny yellow pollen sacs from the centre of an older flower that is just starting to fade
- Carefully pinch each one with your nail to release the pollen
- Pick up the pollen using a paintbrush and dust it onto the long sticky stigma of recently opened flowers on another plant. Remember not to deadhead the flowers as they fade
- The resulting seed pods should ripen in six to nine months. They will contain lots of tiny dust-like seeds
How to sow
To grow new plants from bought or saved seeds, sow in spring:
- Sprinkle the microscopic seeds thinly onto finely sieved, slightly damp seed compost. Leave them uncovered
- Put in a propagator or cover with cling film, a clear plastic bag or a sheet of glass, to hold in moisture
- Place in a lightly shaded spot at 18–24°C (65–75°F). Germination usually takes three to four weeks
- Provide the seedlings with good light but not direct sun. Never let the compost dry out
Seed: collecting and storing
Seed: sowing indoors
African violets can suffer a range of symptoms if their growing conditions aren’t suitable. There are also several pests and diseases to keep watch for.
It’s always best to check plants regularly, as any pests, diseases or problems are easier to resolve if spotted early.
This is often caused by too little light – at least 12 hours of light per day is needed for good flowering. To boost light levels and day-length in winter, move
Pots are plastic, metal, ceramic (incl. terracotta) or biodegradable containers with drainage holes in their base. They range in diameter typically from 5-90cm (2in-3ft), but 7.5-15cm (3-5in) are most commonly used for growing on plants and sowing seeds (although seed trays and seed pans (short pots) are also used for seed).pots to a south-facing windowsill or consider using grow lights.
Dry or cold air and overpotting can also prevent flowering.
African violets suffer various leaf problems, usually due to incorrect light, watering or temperature. Look out for:
- Brown or yellow blotches – usually due to strong, direct sunlight
- Small whitish papery spots – often elongated or in a line across a leaf. These dead patches are caused by the sun’s rays concentrated by irregularities in window glass or water droplets
- Scorching, bleaching and/or stunted growth – light is too intense
- Elongated leaf stalks – not enough light
- Blotches, rings or pale or white spots – using water that is too cold (it should be at room temperature). Avoid wetting the foliage when watering too
- Pale green, with edges, turned up – the temperature is too cold
- Limp and wilted – too much or too little water
Lack of nutrients
African violets can suffer from various nutrient deficiencies, so apply a balanced liquid fertiliser during the growing season. Tell-tale symptoms include:
- Leaf growth strong, but yellow patches along the leaf edges – potassium deficiency
- Some leaf dieback leaves small and dark, grey-green leaves arranged in a flattened rosette – phosphate deficiency
- Leaves are small, hard and yellowish, particularly near the centre of the plant, and few flowers – nitrogen deficiency
Pests and diseases
African violets are susceptible to various pests and diseases.
Common pests include:
- glasshouse leafhopper
- mealybugs, including root mealybugs
- vine weevils
African violets are susceptible to moulds and fungal diseases such as botrytis and powdery mildew.