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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Random Gesneriads (Part 1)

The African violets and Streptocarpus plants have launched into full bloom! Compared to a northern exposure succulent garden, these guys almost grow themselves.  All I do is keep them from drying out and give some dilute Schultz liquid fertilizer a few times a month.  The African violets just EXPLODE every month or so and then bloom for about 2 to 3 weeks.  The two I have here are both from Jewel (the local grocery store).  One has a purple and white flower with fuzzy light green leaves, and the other is a double-petaled, ruffled, wine-colored flower with slightly darker leaves.  The purple/white plant tends to be a stronger bloomer, but the ruffles on the other plant make it fun to keep around.  I like 'em a little on the trashy side.  Dirty, flirty violet.

African violets, Saintpaulia, are in the Gesneriaceae family (Gesneriads), which include the related and also popular Streptocarpus group of plants--more on them later.  Because of the ease of growing African violets and the frequent nature of their bloom cycle, they became popular house plants many years ago.  Your grandmother grows them, I promise.  Violets get a bum rap from folks who buy a blooming plant at the grocery store and then toss it out when they have trouble getting the plant to bloom again.  The most common reasons I have observed in office gardeners who have this trouble are too little light (as in an office cubicle) and lack of fertilizer (as in never).  Fertilizer makes the difference.  Would you flower if someone stuck you in a dark hole and didn't feed you?  Thought not. 

I have the most luck with using half-strength liquid fertilizer every other watering.  Light isn't too tricky for me, either.  They need bright indirect light, which would be either a big North window (like mine), or an East window with strong morning light.  South and West windows may be too bright, unless there is a filter of some kind.  These babies burn!  The result is very unattractive.  I envy people who complain to me that their windows are too bright for African violets.  Really??  Your cup could runeth over with blooming succulents and you are trying to fry violets?  They are sweet little plants, but they can bring a top-notch A game when they feel like it.  Not to be underestimated, they remind me of Betty White.

Watering is also straight forward.  There's no guess work like with succulents:  just stick your finger in the soil and give it a feel!  If it feels damp and some dirt sticks to your finger don't water, but if the soil feels dry and springy give it a drink.  If the idea of sticking your finger in the dirt grosses you out, get over it.  Really saturate the potting medium when you water.  As for the potting substrate, I just use a basic store-bought African violet mix, though you have to be careful to repot every  six months to a year--sometimes the mix dries up and won't take up water like you want.  This has to do with artificial humectants added to the soil that help with water retention.   Apparently they expire...who knew?  Two things to remember:  1) Drainage hole(s) at the bottom of the pot, 2) Don't get water on the leaves or they will permanently spot, which is, again, not pretty. 

I recommend cheap plastic pots for African violets because plastic tends to keep the soil moist longer (great for violets, terrible for most succulents).  For the so inclined, you can just stick the plastic pot into a prettier container.  Violets like to be pot bound to bloom at their best, so generally you will never have the need for a pot larger than 4", as the outer most ring of leaves naturally die off to make room for new growth at the crown.  Miniature cultivars stay even smaller.

For more info, check out the African Violet Society of America

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