Grow & Care for African Violets Like a Pro

African Violets have been one of the most popular houseplants since the beginning of the 20th century.

They call up images of pretty, potted houseplants on crocheted doilies and memories of favorite Mother’s Day gifts. I remember my grandmother’s purple African Violets blooming brightly on her Massachusetts windowsill.

History of African Violets

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African Violets are native to the coastal woodlands of tropical eastern Africa, near the border of Kenya and Tanzania. Baron Walter von Saint Paul discovered them in 1892 while exploring the Usambara Mountains in Tanganyika, now Tanzania.

He sent a sample to the Herrenhausen Greenhouse at the Royal Botanic Garden in Hanover, Germany, where Herman Wendland, director of the Botanic Garden, realized this plant was new to science.

He named it Saintpaulia in honor of the explorer and ionantha, which means “like a violet.”

Though they’re often still sold as Saintpaulia ionantha, their name has recently been updated to Streptocarpus ionanthus. They are members of the Gesneriaceae family, along with familiar Gloxinias, Lipstick Plants, and Goldfish Plants.

Today, African Violets aren’t just for grandma anymore. The first hybrids were introduced in 1927; since then, breeders have created over 16,000 registered cultivars with a worldwide following of enthusiasts.

What Do They Look Like?

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The plants grow in a rosette with fuzzy leaves that come in various shapes – pointed, ovate, heart-shaped, or round, and with ruffled, serrated, wavy, or scalloped edges. A few varieties have variegated leaves.

African Violet flowers come in a myriad of shapes and colors, too. They can be single, double, or ruffled in shades of purple, pink, red (wine), blue, or white. Multicolored varieties display patterns of speckles on the flowers, colored or white edges, striped petals, white increasing outward to a dark color, or dark fading outward to white.

African Violets’ average size is 6″ to 18″ high and wide, but they come in different sizes according to their variety. They are divided into four size categories: large, standard, semi-miniature, and miniature.

Large African Violets can reach 18″ tall and 24″ wide, with 6″ long leaves and 3″ wide blooms.

Standard African Violets are the size of the original species. They grow 6″ to 12″ high and 8″ to 16″ wide, and their blooms are about 2″ wide, with 3″ long leaves.

Semi-miniature-sized plants are more compact, growing 6″ to 8′ tall and wide with 2″ long leaves and 1½ ” wide flowers.

Miniature African Violets are tiny, growing only 6″ tall and wide, with 1″ long leaves and ¾” wide blooms.

With their extensive variety in color, shape, and size, African Violets are excellent houseplants for every taste. They are easy to care for if you give them the right conditions, and they are non-toxic to people and pets.

How to Care for African Violet Plants

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These beautiful flowers need the right light, water, humidity, soil, and pot size to thrive and show off at their best.

Light

African Violets love bright light, but not the direct sun. In Eastern Africa, they receive filtered light through the trees above, so they are adapted to indirect sunlight.

During late spring and summer, African Violets do well in an east- or north-facing window that gets indirect light. However, you can set them in a west- or south-facing exposure during fall, winter, and early spring when the sun is less intense.

They also do well set 18″ to 20″ away from artificial lights. Grow lights or two 40-watt fluorescent bulbs—one daylight and the other cool white—are effective. I keep mine under grow lights, and they bloom two or three times a year.

Temperature and Humidity

African Violets grow best in even temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees F. They don’t like sudden temperature changes or hot or cold drafts, so keep them out of the way of heating or air conditioner vents, entryways, or drafty windows.

To encourage them to bloom, you’ll need to boost the humidity around the plant to 50% or higher. A pebble tray with water will help if you keep the pot above the water line so it isn’t constantly absorbing water.

Soil and Pot

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In Tanzania, where they are native, African Violets grow in small crevices between moss-covered rocks. They live in moist, very well-draining soil, which you’ll have to mimic for them to thrive and bloom.

You can buy a ready-made, commercial African Violet potting mix online or at a garden center or make your own with perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss in equal parts. Coco coir and pumice are good alternatives, too. They all work well and provide an acidic, well-draining, and aerated soil environment for your plant.

It’s also important to use the right-sized pot for your plant. African Violets don’t like being root-bound, but they’ll only bloom if snug in their pots. Use a 2″ pot for miniature plants, a 3″ pot for semi-miniatures, a 4″ pot for standard plants, and a 5″to 6″ pot for large African Violets.

NOTE: Ensure the pot has at least one drainage hole in the bottom.

Water

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African Violets need moist soil that is never dry or soggy. They are highly susceptible to root and crown rot, so it is important to water only when they need it and in the right way.

When to Water

Don’t keep a watering schedule! Overwatering will harm your plant, so the best way to tell when to water is to feel the top of the soil.

I have found that if it’s dry and springs back when you press down on it, it’s time to water. If it’s moist and solid when you press down and doesn’t spring back, you should wait a few more days. A moisture meter can also help you tell when the soil is dry enough to water.

How to Water

Bottom watering is the best way to water your African Violet. When you water from the bottom, you prevent drops from getting on the leaves, which will cause necrotic spots that ruin the plant’s appearance and destroy the leaf tissue. It also prevents crown rot, which can kill your plant.

Set the pot in a dish of room-temperature water for 30 to 45 minutes. The soil will soak up the water in that time. Then, remove the pot, allow it to drain, and empty any remaining water from the dish.

Type of Water

African Violets are sensitive to minerals, such as chlorine, often present in tap water. The best water for your plant is distilled, rainwater, or reverse osmosis water.

Distilled water can become expensive, and you’ll need equipment to produce reverse osmosis water.

But rainwater is free, and I collect it in pitchers that I store for my plants. When I run out of water during dry spells, I let the pitchers sit open for a day to allow the chlorine to evaporate. It’s not as good as rainwater but healthier than tap water for plants.

Fertilizer

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African Violets need a balanced N-P-K fertilizer, such as 14-12-14. A fertilizer formulated specifically for African Violets is best, but a general, all-purpose, balanced product that does not contain urea will be fine.

Urea is cheap to produce, but it can cause root burn in African Violets, which prevents them from absorbing water. They can become pale and limp and refuse to flower.

Fertilize every two to three weeks during the spring and summer or per package instructions.

Pruning

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When new leaves form at the top center of the rosette, older ones on the bottom will die. Clip these off to maintain a clean-looking plant, and clip spent flowers off to encourage new blooms.

Pests

The common pests attacking African Violets are spider mites, Cyclamen mites, and mealybugs.

Spider mites are small, red or brown, eight-legged critters that suck plant juices out of stems and leaves, causing distorted, curling foliage. They will spin webs throughout the plant. Control them with a miticide spray like Neem oil per bottle instructions.

Cyclamen mites are orangy-pink, eight-legged pests that are so tiny they aren’t visible to the naked eye. They thrive in warm, humid air and hide from the light under the flowers and leaves. They suck plant juices and cause distorted, curling foliage that can become crispy and brown, wilted flowers, and buds that fail to open.

You can control Cyclamen mites by submerging the plant and pot in 113-degree F water for 15 minutes. The water won’t harm the plant and will get rid of the mites. As an alternative, you can spray the whole plant with Neem oil.

Mealybugs are slow-moving, creamy-white, fluffy pests that attach themselves to the plant’s foliage and suck their juices. Control these bugs by picking them off with tweezers and spraying the plant with horticultural soap, Neem oil, or a 3:1 solution of water and 92% isopropyl alcohol with two tablespoons of Dawn dish detergent stirred in.

If you have a heavy infestation, you may have to repeat the treatment until the pests are gone.

Diseases

Several fungal diseases cause crown rot and root rot that can plague African Violets when their soil remains soggy after they’re overwatered.

Root rot causes the leaves to wilt and become yellow. It can be controlled by cutting out the black, infected roots and treating the remaining ones with a fungicide like Neem oil.

If you use the same pot to replant your African Violet, disinfect it with alcohol and replace the soil with fresh potting mix.

Crown rot is usually fatal for the plant. The crown and stems appear water-soaked and will blacken and die. If this is the case, it’s best to discard the plant.

However, if it’s in the early stages of crown rot, you may be able to save your plant. Cut the crown off above the infected tissue and dust it with sulfur to kill the fungus. Then, dip it in rooting hormone and replant it in a clean pot in a fresh mixture of peat, vermiculite, and perlite. It should begin to root in a month’s time.

Propagation

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Propagating African Violets is best done with leaf cuttings from a mature plant.

  • Cut a healthy, dark green leaf from the plant at the base of the stem.
  • Trim the stem to about one-half-inch length.
  • Dip the end in rooting hormone.
  • Plant it in a small pot in a mixture of peat, vermiculite, and perlite and water the soil.
  • Fit a plastic bag over the pot to increase the humidity.
  • Set it in a warm, light spot, and it should form new leaves in two to three months.
  • When the new leaves have grown to half their mature size, you can separate and repot them.

With the right amount of sun, water, humidity, and well-draining soil, African Violets can live up to 50 years. They are the most popular houseplants in the United States and have a huge following of local and online enthusiasts who exchange cuttings and hands-on information.  

If you pay close attention to your plant’s needs, it will grow beautifully, and you will enjoy it for years to come.

Author & Editor | + posts

Nancy has been a plant person from an early age. That interest blossomed into a bachelor’s in biology from Elmira College and a master’s degree in horticulture and communications from the University of Kentucky. Nancy worked in plant taxonomy at the University of Florida and the L. H. Bailey Hortorium at Cornell University, and wrote and edited gardening books at Rodale Press in Emmaus, PA. Her interests are plant identification, gardening, hiking, and reading.