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African Violets

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Mid Winter is the hardest time of the year to find any sort of floral colour. Especially so in colder climates. Even in those borderline climates extreme frosts, driving rain and gales often eliminate or severely damage anything that attempts to bloom. And in the more extreme climate zones outdoor colour really doesn't stand much of a chance.

While even indoors short days and very low intensity natural sunlight coupled with artificial 'dry' heating followed by cold night time temperatures combine to eliminate all but the hardiest blooms in a very short time. There are just not many things that thrive under such conditions.

However, there is a notable exception that seems to flower prolifically throughout this difficult period. The most impressive are the Saintpaulia hybrids, the wonderful African Violets. This really  is a true African native from Tanganyika, the southeastern corner of Kenya and the Nguru Mountains of Tanzania. The original native species Saintpaulia ionantha and S. rupicola are a lovely and very simple soft, almost powder blue single species.

Leaves are softly hairy almost velvety on long stems with rather small and almost delicate simple ovate leaves that taper to a point. The leaves are a rather softer green than most modern hybrids. This was a creeping and trailing plant with a growing habit somewhat like a Strawberry or the Woodland Violets. They tend to be found as tropical forest natives growing over damp ground and decayed leaf-mould vegetation.

Occasionally Saintpaulia ionantha and S. rupicola are  seen today as a pot plant or trailing basket plant. But from these simple delicate treasures and only 20 other species discovered just over one hundred years ago. Many of these are now highly endangered in the wild. But commercially today several thousand varieties have already been created that fAfrican-Violet 010-250x166ar out rival and overwhelm the original native species

Among these are many that flower throughout the Winter months. By African Violet - Saint Pauliapurchasing several different varieties of African violet, one can be had in flower every day of the year. Most are very short and spreading herbaceous perennials 6-15cm tall and 6-30cm wide.

Some cultivares have very light geen leaves while others are nearly deep, bronze green. African Violet010(copy)Almost all are softly hairy or velvety. Some have much more distinctive veining or a rigid nature while others are quite delicate, soft and supple.

There is a wide coptimara 02-250x166olour range among Saintpaulia, favouring almost every conceivable shade of blue, lilac, mauve, pink, purple, white and a variety of bi-tri-tones in single, semi-double and double forms with smooth, ruffled and pleated petals. Amongst the famous Rhapsody series there are hybrid cultivars which produce solid colour flowers of one shade on one side of the plant and another shade on the far side of the plant.

The finest I think are the purple Rhapsody cultivars which produce single, semi-double to double blooms in intense blue-purple through to sparkling pearly white sometimes all on the same plant often with 50 or more flowers blooming at once! A well-grown plant in the right micro-climate is often never without at least a few flowers. And in their seasonal peak blooming period the plants are literally covered with an almost perfect posy of flowers surrounded by a rosette of velvet leaves.

African Violet - Saint PauliaAfrican Violets are sometimes dismissed as an 'old fashioned' or 'old Lady' plant. And many people have a fond memories of Grandmas' African Violets. There is a sound explanation for this. The elderly often necessitate continuously warm and draft-free environments as they age. So do African Violets!

This is a plant that favours a warmer room and can tolerate artificially heating.  Cold and drafty spots must be avoided! They thrive in very bright, indirect light or the artificial light directly beneath a reading lamp. This is one plant species that is easily grown to perfection under artificial lighting within the interior of a heated room that stays continuously warm.

They can often burn if exposed to strong sunlight. But during the Winter months of the year African Violets can actually be placed in a sunny and warm window provided it is sheltered from evening chilling drafts with an interior curtain at night. They can also be successfully grown in a bright morning sun position, or behind a light lace curtain or somewhat interior position away from hot direct mid day or afternoon sunshine. They often thrive on a window sill of a bright, humid and warm kitchen which  very closely approximates their native environmental conditions.

African VioletAfrican Violets are best fed with a special Violet food. These are commercial preparations especially made for their specific needs. No home preparation could do them any better, possibly because all todays' African Violets are made-man hybrid creations which love man-made food. However, they also respond well to light applications of most commercial soluble plant foods.

Another less expensive alternative is egg shell water. This can be made by soaking up to a dozen egg shells (never whole eggs!!!)  in 2 litres of water for a week or two. A 2 liter plastic milk container is ideal. Crush the egg shells enough to get them through the top. Then fill with water. Place the cap loosely on the top but do not screw it back in place. If you do, the hydrogen sulfide gases emitted as the egg shells ferment will most likely explode the container and cause a dreadful and smelly mess. But loosely placing the cap over the top will hold down the smell without any unfortunate consequences. It is best to keep the egg shell water at room temperature.

And whenever the African Violets are being either watered and/or feed always use tepid water at room temperature. Also preferably either distilled water, rain water or water that has been allowed to stand for at least a few hours to release any Chlorine or chemical additives in treated 'city' water. These often prove toxic to Saintpaulia and will result in unfortunate leaf spotting. It is also best to water them lightly before applying any form of liquid fertiliser as African Violets are highly sensitive and tender thus chemically burn and spot easily.

Keep water off the foliage as much as possible and never water into their central crown of leaves. If water ever does spill into their central crown or upon their foliage, just brush it away with a soft brush, absorb it gently with a tissue or paper towel or blow it away with a strong puff of air. Most professional African Violet Growers grow their plants on reticulation mats or in trays of round river gravel or sand. They can also be grown in saucers with the water placed into the saucer and drawn up into the plant.

Then any excess water is removed within an hour and never allowed to stand around the plant.  Always attempt to keep the plants constantly moist. There is available now a very inexpensive self-watering pot that takes all the fuss out of watering. Soluble fertiliser can be added to the water of the pot making these plants nearly maintenance free.

African violets create virtually no pollen making them low allergenic plants suitable for hospitals and those suffering from asthma.

New African Violet plants are very easy to propagate from leaf cuttings. Simply cut a healthy, strong leaf, best from near the middle sections of the plant. Place the leaf in a small pot partially filled with house plant or seed-raising mix with the leaf leaning against the side of the pot for support. Then fill in around the leaf stem with more mix. Water thoroughly once then keep lightly moist and in a bright, humid and warm environment. Within a few weeks to a few months a new set of leaves will emerge from near the base of the leaf stem. Let these grow on naturally.

After a while the old parent leaf will die away. Often within 8 months to a year the new plant will come into flower. Well-grown African Violet plants can live for a number of years. New plants are often started for old parent leaves. New varieties are started from seed which is started in a terrarium environment similar to growing Coleus from seed. Leaf cuttings can be started at almost any time but usually strike new plants fastest when taken in the warmer and brighter months.

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dale-john 01-100x66 Dale Harvey and John Newton met in Melbourne Australia in 1981. Since then they both have supported each others careers while also building and maintaining their own. Read about how they were able to turn their joint careers into one and creating a dream of a better world starting in their own local community.

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