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Try a challenge with African violets

Some African violets are variegated with various colors of blooms to add a different flair. John Zvirovski / The Sun

One of the most recognizable houseplants around is the African violet. Not necessarily because it is the easiest plant to grow, but because it is one of the few houseplants that will bloom throughout the entire year with the proper care. That is the key to their success, proper and consistent care.

I have tried the African violet many times, but they are not too keen on my lack of attention and forgetting about them in a spare room with a bright light. In fact, what usually happens, as I visit them monthly during that rare trip to the spare room, is watch them suffer a very slow and frightful death throughout a two-year period. I have learned through trial and error that they need a little more care than I was used to giving them.

African violets are native to Tanzania, where they were discovered in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, they were introduced to the rest of the world for cultivation. Their habitat resides in the understory of the tropical forests, where they are now being threatened due to the clear cutting of the land for agricultural uses. There are as few as six native species in that region, which bloom in violet, purple, pale blue and white.

These violets are available throughout the year in many local markets and even through catalog and online orders. I prefer to select my plants directly to make sure that I am getting the healthiest specimen, as I know it will be in for the ride of its life when it enters my home setting.

African violets come in four main sizes. There is the miniature plant that grows to less than 6 inches across. The semi-miniature grows 6 to 8 inches across. The standard violet grows from 8 to 16 inches across, and the large variety can be in excess of 16 inches. The ones I buy are usually of the standard variety, but after a matter of months they tend to look more like the miniature strain ... without flowers!

The leaves are round, thick and fuzzy and grow singly on their own stem from a central axis point. They grow very slowly in height and create a mass of leaves in a circular formation. Usually the edges of the leaves are smooth, but some have scalloped or ruffled edges. Some varieties even have variegated leaves with white and pink coloring.

The flowers appear from the central portion of the plant on numerous single stems. Each stem contains anywhere from 3 to 12 flowers on them that slowly begin to open into a bloom with five petals. With all the new varieties that have been created, these violets now come in single or double flowers also. The color range has broadened immensely from their original native habitat. Now they can be found in shades of red, burgundy, pink, fuschia, and numerous bi-color strains. Some of the flowers can bloom as small as a quarter of an inch across to as large as a half dollar.

When selecting a plant, always make sure that you choose one with good shape and color with no discoloration on the leaves. If you are like me, choose one that already has flower buds, as it may be the only time you get one to bloom.

The container that the violet is growing in should be half as deep as standard containers and wider, with drainage holes in the bottom. The potting mixture should be a good African violet sold separately from regular potting soils.

One of the keys to growing a successful violet is to place it near a bright northern or eastern window with plenty of light. Avoid windows in which the sun becomes too intense, especially in the summer months, as this can burn and discolor the leaves. Without enough bright filtered light, the violet will not bloom.

The second key to success is to water the violet on a consistent basis; this would mean more than once a month as I have discovered it is not a cactus. Always use a deep tray beneath the container and fill it with tepid water from the bottom when the soil is dry to the touch. After an hour, drain the excess water from the tray and replace it beneath the container. Water on the leaves will cause discoloration and spots and can promote crown rot within the plant.

If you are interested in starting a new plant from your violet, or that of a friend's plant, simply cut off a couple healthy outer leaves of the plant with a sharp knife. With a few leaves removed from the outside, the plant does not lose its shape and the loss goes unnoticed.

Obtain a glass or plastic cup and fill it with water at room temperature. Put a cover of waxed paper over the top and secure it to the container with a string or rubber band. Then create small holes in the top just large enough to place the stem of the leaf through till it is predominantly in the water, with the actual leaf above the barrier. Within six weeks, the base of the stem will develop roots and small plantlets. At that time, remove the leave from the water and plant it into a new container. Within the following year, you will grow a new, healthy and vigorous plant for your own enjoyment or to use as a gift for others.

Through all the pain and suffering I have put many African violets through in past years, I have found that with the proper light, container and watering schedule, even I can grow a healthy and vibrant plant. Don't let past experiences with a particular houseplant keep you from future success, just be consistent in your care and they will reward you with years of flowering beauty!