African Violet Checkup: Time To Spruce, Divide And Clean Up African Violets

This is the time of year when most garden interest centers are outdoors. But it is also the time you should check over your African violets.

Perhaps your plants are no longer the handsome, eager-to-bloom specimens they were all winter.

Caring for African VioletsPin

If so, it may be the result of neglect or overpampering. Unfortunately, time also takes its toll on this favorite, but many indications of old age, neglect, or pampering can be corrected, restoring vigor, shapeliness and color.

If the flavor is still wanted, a whole spice chest of the newest recent varieties may introduce color and form to the jaded fare you already have.

African Violet Plant Form

The saintpaulia is naturally symmetrical in growth, with new leaves growing into appointed places to create a casual balance only Nature can achieve.

However, since plants tend to turn themselves in the direction of the light they receive, our one-sided window exposure soon creates one-sided plants.

This is the chief cause of most unsightly African violets we have had around for some time.

Avoid this by giving each plant a quarter-turn clockwise every few days or at least a half-turn once each week.

If you have a plant that has practically grown itself over the pot edge, better turn it halfway around and leave it until it is nearly straight again.

Older plants are more easily “drawn” out of balance because of the wobbly, bare stems they generally have between the crown and soil level.

A well-groomed plant shows none of this tell-tale result of age and neglect.

Steps To Keep a Healthy Growth

If you have one which looks like some tired old palm tree, a highly successful major operation is suggested by Mrs. Carl Sachs, the African-violet specialist of the Garden Club of Cliffside Park, New Jersey.

Mrs. Sachs grows well over a hundred varieties in the windows of her home under conditions found in the normal mid-East Coast dwelling.

Because she has such success in growing beautiful specimen plants, we have asked for her advice in keeping bloom and healthy growth over the years.

First, correction of long-stemmed uglies.

Here are the following tips you can do:

  • Take a thin, sharp knife and cut the crown free of the stem about a half-inch below the lowest leaves.
  • Set this severed crown in a shallow container, such as a discarded “individual” frozen chicken pie tin filled with new vermiculite. The outstretched lower leaves will hold it in place.
  • Keeping the vermiculite barely moist will encourage root growth, which you can check by attempting to lift the plant from the container.
  • If it resists a tug, you can be fairly certain roots have formed, but if it merely lifts free, you can replace it without doing any damage.

Ensure A Sterile Soil

Three weeks should be sufficient time for some indication of new roots. Before the roots become too long, plant them in a 2 ½- or 3-inch pot of sterile soil.

If this is all accomplished with reasonable care, a blooming plant may take it without a drop of bud.

Incidentally, a highly satisfactory soil mixture for potting is the old reliable mixture:

  • ⅓ good garden loam
  • ½ peat
  • ⅓ sand

Use inland sand instead. Beach sand kills plants because it contains salt.

After making the soil mixture, heat for a half-hour or so in an oven at 200° degrees Fahrenheit. It should be sterile then and safe to use when cooled.

You can purchase soil mixtures, especially for African violets, packaged in plastic bags to save time and inconvenience.

Many local garden supply shops, as well as all growers, can supply this.

Most of these mixtures tend to pack tightly in time, so it is wise to lighten with additional peat, sand, or vermiculite.

Keep the soil very loose and friable. If the pots you’re considering have been used before, scrub them clean and boil in a dilute solution of Chlorox and water for 20 minutes.

Unless your plant measures more than a foot across, you will rarely need a pot larger than 3” inches.

Overcrowded Pots

Another common cause of misshapen African violets is that there is more than one “plant” in a pot.

You can count crowns. If there is more than one center from which new leaf growth and buds appear, plan for another operation.

Advanced growth can be cut free to start new plants. However, removing the side shoots when they first appear can be almost rubbed off is far better.

Some authorities claim that the tendency to grow side shoots results from a shock to the plant.

However, we have noted that some varieties exhibit this more than others tinder-like conditions.

Plant’s Good Health Characteristics

A healthy African violet, well satisfied with its room and board, is characterized by firm, crisp leaf growth and periods of profuse bloom where individual blossoms fully mature before being “pushed” off the stem by the calyx, as it seems.

If you have a healthy plant that seems reluctant to blossom, it is probably unhappy with its pot (oversized, generally) or is waiting for a change of environment.

Assuming everything is balanced, pot size, sufficient light, and adequate humidity are essential for good bloom.

Great Foliage

Leaf appearance is a general indicator of health in the saintpaulia.

While we desire clean, strong foliage as a natural background for the blossoms, it is essential to good health.

Spotted leaves are common with some growers. This can be traced to water drops on leaves while in direct sunlight, drafts, or chemical purifiers in water that contact the leaves.

If the sunlight is strong enough to “burn” spots, it will probably bleach foliage as well, and then you can be certain there is too much light.

Diffuse with curtains, tissue, or glass opaquing. A fair amount of brightness (1,000 to 1,200-foot candles) is essential, but too much isn’t tolerated. An open north skylight in summer is about correct.

The more direct exposure to sunlight during the winter months, when the sun is fairly weak, encourages some of the best blooming.

Relatively even temperature has much to do with this too. Summertime often makes it challenging to maintain a below-80° degrees Fahrenheit temperature.

Although there is more fresh air (possibly drafty) and humidity, most Northern enthusiasts find their plants with no buds.

If you like to be scientifically accurate and measure out a piece of atmosphere in which growth is best, here is a tested formula:

  • At least 12 hours of daylight of 1,000-foot-candles intensity (it can be measured with a photographer’s exposure meter)
  • 60% percent relative humidity
  • A fairly even temperature in the 65° to 80° degrees Fahrenheit range (70° degrees Fahrenheit is best), plus evenly moist, “open” soil (rainwater is best to use)
  • Fertilization of mature plants every 4 to 6 weeks with either ½ to 1 teaspoon complete fertilizer or liquid fertilizer

All this equals vigorous plants and abundant bloom.

If, by your experimentation, you have found an ideal corner where you get results, stick to it and forget the yardsticks.

Ideal Humidity Level

Humidity is generally the most difficult factor to supply in heated homes.

Try spraying warm water from a window cleaner bottle in the air about them, or pour boiling water into a pan near and below (not in contact with) the plants.

Drug store vaporizers for cold sufferers are actually humidifiers.

All you can do to relieve the Sahara atmosphere of heated rooms will do both you and your African violets much good.

Insect Infestation Prevention

Your only other problem may be an insect infestation—not so likely if you use sterile soil and pots.

Once in a while, without apparent cause, we find a sick-looking saintpaulia with a listless manner and little zest for life.

Plant surgery is considerably more certain than diagnosing maladies because there are many possible causes.

Since the disease is detrimental to plant appearance, we will briefly cover the more prevalent cases.

There is nothing to compare with the effectiveness of the prevention technique.

Insects come from somewhere, so all you have to do is avoid exposure of healthy plants to infestation.

If a plant looks less vigorous than usual, isolate it until the cause can be determined. 

New plants should be kept apart from known healthy ones until a clean bill of health is established.

Regular bi-monthly spraying with an all-purpose insecticide should create an invisible barricade against the enemy.

Then if health wanes, you can start looking elsewhere for the source of evil.

Again, look to the foliage for symptoms. Unnaturally incurved, cupped leaves of new growth betray mites.

Spraying in the evening will catch them at their activity.

Petiole and Root Rot Remedies

On the other hand, leaves that droop listlessly over the edge of the pot suggest crown or petiole (leaf “stem”) rot.

The latter is detected as an indented wound along the petiole resting on the pot rim.

Here is where soil fertilizer salts accumulate as a rusty crust—they are the cause.

Avoid banding the pot rims with foil. This is most easily accomplished at the time of potting.

Another form of petiole rot shows up in glassy, watery-looking foliage as the leaves drape over the edge.

This and the dull, drooping (crown rot) are generally tract bad soil conditions—it may be too compact, soaked, or over-fertilized.

Conditions that any of the above symptoms cannot trace should be investigated by getting at the roots.

Any root rotting should be cut away.

Soil-Borne Nematodes Treatment

Unusual gnarls and knots, or swellings in the roots, disclose the presence of the microscopic, soil-borne nematodes.

Here are the following tips in case of nematode infestation:

  • Destroy plant, pot, and soil immediately.
  • Sterilize anything possibly contacted.
  • If the loss of the plant is “too much to bear,” take a leaf cutting with a short “stem” midway between the center and old leaves.

This is recommended insurance against loss of any favorites for any reason, especially if growers no longer stock them.

However, it is better to replace with a new plant whenever possible.

It takes more time, trouble, and anxiety to treat serious ills in the African violet than it would dispose and replace.

Fortunately, such plagues are rare.

Beauty Aids

A weekly check is sufficient to keep plants well-groomed.

If they bloom prolifically, they will appear equally messy if the dropped blossoms are not picked out, and the depleted flower stems removed at the base.

Dead or dying leaves should be removed, and any infant side shoots that may appear.

Get to know what the characteristic plant form is for those you grow—either flat, hemispheric, or vertical—then encourage that form.

Plants stacked closely to each other in all directions tend to grow stalky.

Or the leaves pressing against the glass or other obstacles will cause them to grow disfigured.

No-touching distance will grow more symmetrical plants and tend to prevent unwelcome visiting insects.

Since we are civilizing this flora, a bath on occasion will render it more acceptable.

A hand syringe that affords a moderately strong spray and some lukewarm (75° to 85° degrees Fahrenheit) water will do nicely for an overall shower.

This is preferable to complete dipping, in which case you may pick up loose soil particles on the hairy leaves or to soft-brush dusting, which makes it easy to pick up pests from one plant and transfer them to others.

Allow wet leaves to dry (naturally) before placing the plant back in the bright window.

If this care sounds like too much trouble—a condition that never exists in the mind of an enthusiast—but you still want to enjoy a few vigorous African violets in your not-too-ideal surroundings, get hold of an aquarium and try it this way.

  • Put an empty 2-inch clay pot in the corner of this fish tank (it should be at least 12″ inches high).
  • Place a 2-inch layer of sand in the bottom of the tank.
  • Put plants on top of this and place a 40-watt fluorescent reflector.
  • Putting water in the little pot will allow it to seep through the sand and, finally, to the plants.
  • Keep the water level in the pot, barely covering its base.
  • Then if you cover the aquarium with glass, allowing a crack for air, you won’t need to re-water for weeks.

The African violets will grow with amazing speed, bloom willingly, be free of drafts, have a built-in humidifier, and keep clean without showering.

There is only one “catch” to it: You have to turn the light on and off, allowing 14 hours of illumination.

For consistent results, you have to be as punctual as the sun or use an electric clock timer.

Of course, this setup will go in the window too, but this will work if you have almost nothing but a shelf in a closet. Try it!

Spice In New Varieties

While the African violet is a newcomer in the domesticated plant world, its hybridization is still younger.

One might say that major growers have only recently met on the field of competitive challenge and that the utmost breeding skill is being displayed.

Color has been the primary goal: variations of the available blues and pinks and their purification.

But different forms and textures appeared along as sort of by-products, both in blossom and in foliage, so that now interest has swung toward combining the most desirable and “creating” a new plant.

If some of the new saintpaulias had not the bonus of producing splendid blossoms, they would be sufficiently interesting as a foliage plant, so interesting is plant form and leaf color and texture.

A hairless variety with begonia-slick leaves was introduced, so now we don’t have to take the fuzzy leaf for granted.

Even though “blue” is the major color category, we do not find a pure spectral blue (at least not at the moment), and a described dark blue will not be as much as a deep tub of laundry blue as it will a three-cent postage stamp.

There always seems to be a hint of pink in it, no matter how slight. Nor has the “true blue” appeared to diminish the pure intensity of the forget-me-not.

We cannot measure all reds by salvia and geraniums.

Saintpaulia reds are wine tones—the blue is always there. And as for yellow—well, they’ve done it with the petunia, another “blue” flower, so perhaps the patient wizards can do as much for our window favorite.

Like all true lovers, those of the African violet find it endearing for what it is.

Why should it look like something else when it has so many individual charms of its own?

Still, we do find excitement in a new frill, a fresh color, and an easy-to-live-with manner—all developed just for us.

Wide Selection Of African Violets

You can have a smorgasbord selection by visiting a grower’s display and salesrooms—an experience of wonder.

Next, the best is to go through their “menu” in catalog form and don’t overlook the house’s specialty.

In any event, getting healthy, the labeled stock is the first step toward a well-groomed look.