WINNING HOUSEPLANT: Don't let anything you've heard about African violets being hard to grow and care for intimidate you. They are an easy houseplant to care for, because they thrive in lower light situations and can tolerate the lower humidity levels we find in our homes with forced-air heat.
This column was previously printed in the March 5, 2002, issue of CAPPER'S.
Books have been written about growing them, and they have their own special potting soils and fertilizers. This could intimidate a gardener attempting to grow Saintpaulia ionantha. However, after all is said and done, African violets are one of the easiest houseplants to care for.
In their native habitat of East Africa, they are found growing in the fissures of rocks that have accumulated soil high in organic matter. When you think about that, you can understand why an African violet needs to be planted in a light, airy soil that promotes good drainage.
Although numerous potting soils on the market were developed for African violets, I use the same soilless mix my other plants are potted in. Most potting mixes will work, as long as they drain well. The most common failure in growing violets is crown and root rot, which is induced by wetness.
I can remember hearing as a child that African violets had to be watered from the bottom. This is a misconception. Violets can be watered from the top or the bottom. However, if they are watered from the top, care should be taken not to spray the leaves with water. Cold-water droplets on the foliage will cause bleached spots to appear on the leaf. While the spots are not aesthetically pleasing, they cause no real physical harm to the plant. Whichever method of watering is preferred, keep the soil moist - but not wet.
Perhaps the violet's greatest cultural attribute is its ability to thrive in lower light situations than that of other houseplants. Violets are known for blooming in a north or east window. I could quote the scientific numbers of how many hours of lumens are required for good health, but you don't need to know that. A good rule of thumb is: If the leaves are thin and have long stems, the plant is not receiving enough light; if the plant is compact and not vigorous, it is probably getting too much light. The foliage can scorch if the plant is placed in direct sunlight.