Raise African violets and see nostalgia bloom

A combination of things makes them the most popular household plant in the world

By Dean Fosdick ~ The Associated Press

NEW MARKET, Va. -- During holiday gatherings long past, when to grandmother's house we'd go, memories were made of cooking odors from the kitchen, cozy heat from the wood stove and scores of African violets arrayed along window sills.

African violets are great nostalgia plants. Yet a combination of things makes them the most popular houseplant in the world.

"Most people have memories of family -- grandmothers or aunts or someone growing violets," says Ruth Rumsey of The African Violet Society of America Inc., in Beaumont, Texas. "But they're so easy to grow and they're constantly blooming. That makes them appeal to everyone, from teenagers on up."

African violets were introduced to Europe in 1892 from the then-German colony of Tanganyika (Tanzania), where they grew in shallow soils washed into mountainous cracks and crevices.

The flowers soon made their way to the Royal Botanic Garden at Hanover, Germany, where Director Hermann Wendland characterized them "of enhancing beauty one of the daintiest hot house plants."

More varieties were discovered after the East Africa colony joined the British Commonwealth following World War I.

"In all, 10 species of plants were found in Tanzania," says Rumsey, who edits the society's African Violet Magazine. "Some still grow those. (But) hybridizers have produced thousands and thousands of different varieties over the years. They're striving for things that make them easier to grow."

Today's cross-bred African violets aren't your grandmother's plants.

"The main difference would be color," Rumsey says. "Early on, they were purple with an occasional pink. Now we have some with yellow in them. Even green."

And white and blue. Bicolored with blooms tending to red-violet or lavender-pink. Star- or heart-shaped petals. Quilted or variegated leaves. Miniature plants. Trailers. Flowers fringed or ruffled. Double rows of petals. Nonstop bloomers.

Hybridization tells.

Despite their tropical origins, African violets are undemanding. All they need is some common sense care and feeding. Their comfort level mirrors your own.

A few suggestions:

Don't over water. That opens the way for a variety of problems, ranging from root rot to insect infestations.

Watch the lighting. African violets do well under fluorescent lights but also thrive in indirect sunlight. Sheer shades help.

Fertilize regularly, perhaps three out of every four waterings. Use high nitrogen fertilizers to prod the growth of plants not yet ready to flower and high phosphorous mixes for plants mature enough to bloom.

Use tepid or room-temperature water. That will save spotting if you happen to spill some on the delicate leaves. Turn your pots 90 degrees with each watering to promote plant symmetry.

Potting mixtures run the gamut, but peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, horticultural charcoal, lime and loam make a gritty combination. Pack your pots loosely, so the roots can aerate.

Humidity is good -- levels running about 60 percent. Remember their rainforest origins. If you do run into problems, understand that African violet fanciers are a chatty bunch. They operate clubs and Web sites; produce newsletters and magazines. They sponsor conventions, swap plants and leaves, set up library displays and design educational programs for schools.

"This plant has brought a lot of different people together," says Rumsey, whose 10,000-member society claims 300-plus affiliate clubs and subscribers from more than 20 nations. "A lot of our online groups discuss insect treatments, the proper way to pot and new potting mixes, among other things."

Plants are inexpensive unless you select one of the rare varieties. African violets are available anywhere from dime stores to kindly neighbors and church groups.

"Violets are pretty thrifty," Rumsey says. "You can break off a leaf and root it and grow an altogether new plant. Kids can grow them (in classrooms) in time for Mother's Day."

There's no seasonality for African violets although many gardeners cultivate them when the weather cools.

"They bloom year-'round," Rumsey says. "Even if you're in a cold climate, they'll bloom for you."