Prairie View

Friday, July 07, 2017

African Violets

Despite what I thought during most of  my growing-up years, African violets are truly a houseplant for those lacking a green thumb.  I thought it was very important not to get any water on the leaves, so they should always be bottom-watered.  I've been watering from the top for years now, regularly getting water on the leaves, with no major problems.  I don't make a habit of using cold water, however, since room temperature water is a good thing for keeping the leaves healthy.

Gradually I've added to my practices other tidbits that I'm consolidating here for future reference, and to get them clear in my own mind.

1.  Propagation.  Removing a leaf and burying all of the stem and a bit of the leaf in moist potting soil is the propagation method I have used most often.  New plantlets will eventually pop to the surface if all goes well.

To help the process along, rooting hormone powder can be applied to the leaf stem tips.  Putting a bit of powder inside a small lid or something similar works well for this purpose.  Handle the leaf stem as though it were a stamp being inked on a stamp pad.  Only the end needs rooting hormone.

A second helpful practice is to set the pot with its leaf or leaves inside a plastic bag tall enough to contain the pot with its leaves.  Gather the top of the bag into a circle made by your thumb and forefinger.  Blow into the bag, filling it with moist carbon dioxide, and then secure the top tightly with a twistie.  Another option is to set them in a tiny "greenhouse" made from a large grocery store container like the ones that sometimes contain baby spinach or chopped kale.  Expose these babies gradually to drier room air, first by opening the bag, then over time, removing it completely.  One source suggested that this can happen after one week.  You'll know for sure that it's OK when you see evidence of new growth.

A note on propagating violets with variegated leaves:  Use leaves with the least variegation as propagation material.  I don't know why, but I read it somewhere.

My niece Hannah says she has simply put detached leaves in water and the will send up new plans that way too.  I haven't tried that.

2.  Maintenance.  Here's where I've learned several new tips recently.  The plants I keep at school are watered weekly with a weak fertilizer liquid solution.  A balanced N-P-K analysis is best and can be used for all houseplants.  I also use a good potting soil mix.  Here it's sold under the Stutzmans brand, but elsewhere I believe it's called Sunshine.  Many of the mixes sold specifically for African violets are not really "loose" enough to work very well.

At school the violets get morning sun.  Here at home, they hardly ever get direct sunlight, but I have them near an east window.  To some extent, more light means more blooms.

One tip I learned recently is that blooming plants should be maintained with about 5 circles of leaves.  Here some information about their growth habit might be helpful  As violets grow, the crown elongates above the soil line.  In other words, growth of new leaves originates at the tip of the crown.  Flowering stalks originate there as well.  Although I'm not sure that it's quite this simple, I think of each circle of leaves (they branch out in several directions at nearly the same point on the elongated crown) prompting growth of a new set of flowering stalks  Think of the growth process as accumulating layers of leaves and flowering stalks.  The lowest leaves therefore have no more help to offer in flower power, and only a limited number of leaves should be  maintained to keep the plant vigorous enough to produce new leaves and flowers.  The bottom line here is to keep pinching or trimming off the oldest leaves, and no harm will come to the plant.  I presume it will help somewhat in controlling the size.   Untrimmed plants can easily reach a foot across.

The second tip I learned is to diligently maintain only a single crown for each plant.  Some varieties seem to have a great propensity to establish multiple crowns.  This has the effect of crowding the pot and making the plant misshapen. and asymmetrical.  The remedy is to pinch or slice off every new crown as it appears.  The developing crowns will look like the center of the plant (with new leaves and flowering stalks originating there), but they will be developing at the side of the original crown.  A few of the plants I kept at school (only certain kinds) were chock full of crowns by the end of the year.  I suppose this has something to do with the fact that for the first time ever, I had a problem with powdery mildew.  Jason, at Stutzmans, recommended a fungicide commonly used on Roses.  It contains Neem Oil.

3.  Repotting.  Violets should be repotted every 6-12 months.  The reason for this again becomes clear with some explanation.  Remember that I referred to the crown as becoming gradually elongated?  That elongation eventually creates an odd looking plant if it's not repotted or replaced.  If the light exposure is uneven, the elongated crown bends toward the light, and the plant begins to look "off-center" in the pot.  If the light is even all around, a bare trunk-like structure develops, and the leaves are perched on top--like a palm tree.

If unsightliness is the main problem, an emergency measure that makes it look better is to simply set the plant deeper in the pot, burying part of the "trunk." A better option is to remove most of the leaves, leaving only the very top 1/2 inch of the crown intact (cut the bottom part off) and bury the small crown piece.  Treat it exactly like you do the leaves from which you're trying to grow new plants--root hormone, pot inside a plastic bag.

A schoolroom is a great place for African violets.  As all plants do, they take in carbon dioxide (which is what people breathe out), and give off oxygen (which is what people need to breathe in).  So especially where there are lots of people, lots of plants help keep the air fresh.  Gideon commented last year when he walked into my classroom, "The air smells fresh in here.  My room smells like stale perfume."  There's a tip for other teachers of 7th and 8th graders out there.

As I discovered last year, however, plants in a schoolroom face some hazards that my plants do not face at home.  A row of students sitting in chairs along the back wall by the windows will inevitably have some students who love to lean back by tipping their chairs.  Predictably, heads begin to tangle with crisp leaves, and some of them break (the leaves, not the heads).  Also, if the sills are not wide enough, and the row of chairs migrates closer and closer to the window wall, students will break off leaves by simply trying to squeeze through the space with an armload of books .

Teachers don't always have the ability to "think like a plant," which sometimes results  in placing plants where they fit the room use and decor, rather than to place them where they have the amount of light they need to grow and perform well.  Save those inhospitable spots for artificial plants.  They'll meet the decor need, although they won't freshen the air one iota.  Full-spectrum bulbs in the light fixtures will benefit the plans that are located away from the windows.  They'll benefit the students too, although that's a topic for another post.

I now have accumulated five kinds of violets, without making a point of collecting them.  Most of them were given to me by relatives.  I bought one at the MCC sale perhaps as much as a decade ago.  That one has  pure white flowers and the medium-green leaves have a scalloped edge.   The others came from my niece Hannah (a double purple, leaves with a purple underside), my sister Carol (leaves with a white edge, and producing clear pink flowers),  Aunt Mary (rosy pink flowers and apple green leaves), and Hiromi (deep blue-purple single flowers with dark green leaves).  I don't consider myself an expert on violets or a connoisseur of them, but I try to give them what they need after they're in my possession, and they repay me by adding wholesome beauty to my environment.


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