2017-02-09 / From The Garden

The Ideal Houseplants

By Cynthia Gibson

With gardens currently dormant, midwinter is a good time to take a fresh look at some popular houseplants. Among them is the African violet – a simple old-fashioned houseplant that you cannot kill.

A great thing about African violets is that they are available for purchase throughout the year. Between January and March, you will find fabulous varieties at your local nursery green house, florist shops and supermarkets. Surprisingly, supermarkets have some of the finest offerings.

The sign of a healthy African violet is the pom-pom of violet blossoms atop a perfectly circular display of leaves. They give year-round green leaves, and flower at least twice a year. Blossoms range in color from pure white to a raspberry red and every shade of purple in between. Some flower petals are rounded, while others are ruffled or “picotee.”

The leaves will tell you everything you need to know about the plant’s health. Many varieties have variegated leaves. Should they start to turn yellow, it’s a sign of too much or too little water. If the stems become transparent, you are over-watering. Test the moistness of the soil with your finger. A few brown leaves are signs of neglect and should be removed. African violets love indirect sunlight and will point their leaves toward the slightest bit of sun, so be sure to rotate the pot.

African violets were first known as Usambara violets. They were discovered in the forests of the Usambara mountains, southeast of Lake Victoria, in what was German East Africa (now Tanzania). They caught the eye of the district governor Baron Adalbert Emil Walter Redcliffe le Tanneaux von Saint Paul- Illaire, who collected the seeds and sent them home to Germany. Both seeds and plants were sent to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Herrenhaus, Germany, which is where the violet was given the genus name Saintpaulia after the baron.

The first specimens made their way to the United States from Germany in 1893, but they did not travel well and were too fragile, stalling hopes of growing them commercially. But by the 1930s with the development of the fluorescent light bulb, it was possible to ship them to grow in America and the effort saw raging success.

The breakdown of African violet classifications is as follows: standard, baby, miniature, single petals, double, Chimeras, Ukrainian, Russian, and trailing. Varieties to look for are My Sensation, Bloodshot, Midnight Waterfall, and Poetry Man. The Russian and Ukrainian varieties are amazing, looking like a cross between carnations and orchids.

Buy your plant soon to grow and show this summer at the flower show!


Local hardware stores carry all the supplies you might need, from African violet potting mix to fertilizer. The plant is happy growing in a plastic azalea pot, which is more shallow than a typical flower pot. You can later move it to a prettier cachepot for aesthetics. Your African violet will need repotting twice a year.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport.

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