close up of African violet

Magical beginnings of the African violet

Imagine tropical Africa–cool at night and sultry during the day. Sometime in the distant past, a healer administers “hearts ease” to an ailing villager prone to heart problems. Next door, a mother places flowers underneath the pillow of her child to ward off nightmares. They are the same flowers she carried in her pocket all day to deflect wicked spells. Meanwhile, a young man, spurned by his girlfriend, places a dead plant at her doorstep, placing a hex on her so no other men will find her attractive.

And then along comes German Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire (say that fast five times!), the district commissioner to Tanganyika (now Tanzania). He finds this beautiful plant the villagers use growing in the jungle with light purple flowers and thick, velvety leaves. It looks so similar to the violets that Persephone is reputed to have been picking when Hades whisked her away to the underworld that the Baron calls it an African violet and sends the seeds home to his father.

Today, we know that although it looks quite similar, the African violet is not related to the species Viola, but is its own separate species of herbaceous perennial flowering plant. Once thought to have as many as 20 sub-species, the African Violet Society of America has narrowed it down to only six (although there are many more hybrids). Its flowers can be violet, pink, or white, and it is reputed to be a bit difficult to grow. Since it is a common gift to new mothers (stemming from an old story that violets bloomed when Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would be having the child of God), we wonder if it doesn’t get such a bad rap because new mothers can barely take care of themselves when there is a new baby in the house!

With the same amount of attention any houseplant needs, you can grow these magical beauties from southeastern Africa, too. We’ll reveal the secrets here!

jungle floor

Choosing an African violet–it’s not voodoo

There you are, standing in your local greenhouse looking at your choices for African violets. If it is your first time, you may want to consider a smaller plant. That way, you won’t feel so bad if you have to abandon your project and start over. On the other hand, if you have tried before, and are a bit more familiar with the plant, by all means, go big!

Look for a healthy, well-hydrated-looking plant with thick leaves and only one growing center. Make sure the leaves are dark green and free from spots on the leaves. And before you head home, find a container that’s about 1/3 bigger than the plant, not too deep and with plenty of good drainage holes. Pick up a deep saucer while you’re at it and some specially mixed, organic soil just for African violets while you are at it.

Planting your magical African violet

As with all of your plants, allow the African violet to rest for a day or two in its original pot in a place with indirect light. This helps the plant get used to the air and humidity level in your home. When you are ready, remove it gently from its original container and carefully spread out the roots. Dump some potting mix into the container and pack it up around the sides. You will want to plant your African violet with its leaves as close to the top of the soil as possible. Leaving the stem too exposed can encourage rot. So snuggle it in tight. Then, without splashing any water on it’s sensitive leaves, water the soil with lukewarm water until the water starts to dribble out the drainage holes. Do not soak the soil, just moisten it.

Ensuring good juju for years (i.e., caring for your African violet)

As mentioned above, place your African violet in a place where it will get indirect light, like the floor of a jungle. The perfect environment for your plant is a place where the sun won’t scorch its leaves, there is plenty of humidity, nighttime temperatures are around 60 degrees, and daytime temperatures are between 80 to 85. Of course this is not really how our homes are set up, so just avoid keeping it near cold glass and try to find in a room that warms up during the day.

And since getting water on the leaves can cause a lot of problems for this fussy plant, do not try misting it to up the humidity. Instead, place it on a tray of pebbles and keep them wet. Keep the soil moist, but find that happy medium between letting the soil dry out and soaking it (and rotting the root). Water when the top layer of the soil feels dry to the touch. The best way to water African violets is actually from the bottom as it mimics the way the grow in the wild, taking their water from the moss on the rocks on which they tend to grow.

Lastly, be sure to re-pot your African violet at least once a year, if not twice a year.

pink African violets

Nurturing the magic

The Victorians, ever mindful of the language of plants, said the African violet represented innocence, abundance, an true love. They most commonly gave it as a gift to people celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Which stands to reason–these people have nurtured each other (or at least managed to not kill each other) for most of their lives together,. Surely they can give the attention this plant needs to flourish. And as long as you keep water and sun off of its leaves and find the perfect moisture balance for your home micro-climate, you are looking at a beautiful plant that just might ward off evil, too.