African Violets – My Indoor Garden

I don’t really remember my first african violet – at least, I don’t think I do.  What I remember is the one which I’m sure was my second.  My little cousin, aunt and I used to go with my grandmother to the garden centre – it was flat for the wheelchair, had a nice tea-room, and changed seasonally so there was always something different to see.  Often my cousin and I would get some small plant – usually a coleus, or fittonia because they were funky and brightly coloured.  One time, though, I spied an african violet and, amazingly to me at the time, it wasn’t one of the deep purple ones!  I’d never seen an african violet which wasn’t dark purple and here was an array of frilly, spotty, brightly coloured plants just begging someone to take them home.  I picked out a pale blue one with white stripes and a pointy star shaped flower.  This was a ‘cool’ flower, to my mind.  I’d never managed to keep flowering plants ever (perhaps the coleus really were a good choice, given that) but this little thing wouldn’t give up.  Even when I naturally forgot to water it and sat it in bright sunlight all it did was peaceably wait until I did remember and then blossom profusely when it was shown the slightest attention.

It was sometime around then that I found out they could be propagated by leaf.   It must have been from a book, or maybe grandpa, because I wasn’t even really aware of the internet at that point.  I got a pot, tore some leaves off of my poor long suffering plant and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  I watched the leaves die, one by one, until there were only two left.  Those two ‘took’, though, and by the next year I had two more plants almost the same size as their progenitor.  They didn’t flower the same – both were either plain white or pale blue (it’s been a while, I can’t remember exactly) which I was confused by at the time as, hey, propogating from leaf is like cloning, right?  They were star shaped though, so that was fine.  They were still cool.  Before I left home for Uni I think there were eight or so plants clogging up my grandparent’s windowsills.  My original plant is lost to time and moving house about three times since, but I still have a keen fascination with these really cool, easily kept plants.

I’ve just begun, really, to understand how to grow them and I’m still having beginner problems – no amazing prize specimens like those I’ve seen elsewhere.  However, with the kind advice of some kindly expert growers I’m beginning to get good results!  I’ve also embarked on something I’d always dreamed of but thought it was way out of my reach as an amateur gardener – hybridising.  I loved genetics when I was at school, I have always been fascinated by them since, and the idea of doing my own crossings seemed like a pipe-dream.  Something only serious people with big greenhouses and years of experience do.  For some plants, that is inevitably true – they require too much by way of special conditions – but with african violets ‘home hybridising’ is relatively easy – possibly too easy given the thousands of different cultivars available.

There are some things you never see in garden centres here though – reds, yellows, variegated leaves, and trailing violets. Minis and semi-minis are also very rare, though I’ve spied a few micro-minis near the tills in Homebase!  Rarely, plants like the one at the top crop up (a chimera with striped petals) and there’s also the occasional ‘fantasy’ type (where they have streaks or spots of colour splashed across the flowers), but these are also few and far between.  It seems a shame that most generalist shops are limited to only the same 8-10 cultivars from the same dutch companies but I guess that’s probably true of most plant types – and I’m not sure I’d like to consign any more african violets to watery graves in diy-stores and garden centres.

The internet has a lot of resources about african violets.  Tonnes.  Squillions.  It can be hard, sometimes, to sift through the same ‘basic plant care’ sites which are all copies of one another and contain little real information to find the gems of the online resources – so I figured I’d share a few links to those I’d personally found useful.

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