Miss Floribunda: Common sense vs. senseless violets
Dear Miss Floribunda,
After bringing in my gawky potted plants for the winter, I realize I don’t much like any of them. I won’t name them for fear of being guilty of plant-shaming, but let’s say that being green and easy to grow is the best that can be said for them. They are the rare survivors of many gifts from friends who insist I have to have living plants around for good feng shui and to purify the air.
What I’d rather have are window sills full of African violets in beautiful colors. I never stop buying African violets on sale, and they never survive. I’ve read up on them and gotten lots of tips from indoor gardeners but have trouble recalling all the little details: whether they like cold or warm water, how often to water, whether to water from the top or beneath, when to repot them, how to space them, how often to fertilize, which windows they prefer at which time of year — and other things I forget. If nothing else, can you give me ways of remembering?
Amnesiac on Nicholson Street
I experienced your problem also, to the great exasperation of my Aunt Snapdragon. She solved the problem by taking me to a display of African violets (genus Streptocarpus) in the indoor rainforest at the U.S. Botanical Gardens. As she put it, “If you had any common sense, you’d know that every plant wants you to replicate its natural habitat as much as possible. I’m going to show you how violets live in the wild.”
At the arboretum, I saw myriad African violets in their natural habitat. It is nothing like the natural habitat of conventional violets (genus Viola), to which they are only very distantly related. It became obvious that in their tropical jungle setting, the plants are accustomed to warm rather than cold water! (I shudder when I think I was once advised to put an ice cube in each pot of violets.) The light they receive is filtered by the leaves of the enormous trees they shelter beneath.
When I viewed the flowering plants growing in concavities in a network of above-ground tree roots I finally understood why they like to be pot-bound. Their position in the root network of the trees also helped explain why they should be watered from the bottom. Although I was well aware from bitter experience that moisture on their fuzzy leaves resulted in spots of brownish rot, I didn’t understand why it made any difference whether the water was added just under leaves or at root level. Now I saw how they received water in the tropics. There would be torrential rains every afternoon, but because of the luxuriant tree canopy the water would not touch the leaves of the plants nestling in its shelter but would rise into their roots from the drenched soil.
I also realized that because of the shallowness of the tree-root concavities, the soil would be dry by the time the next afternoon’s rain came. Never again would I water my violets until the soil in their flower pots was dry, and I would place the room-temperature water in a tray beneath them.
Looking at the flowers growing so close to each other, I realized why separating the plants and artfully displaying the different pots in solitary splendor had made them droop and stop blooming each time I tried it. In the wild, they are used to being together, where they exchange moisture transpired through their leaves as well as just through their roots. They might even enjoy a sense of companionship. Quite a few studies show that plants may be more sentient than we imagine. If you are very sensitive, let me give you a word of warning from my own experience: After I read The Secret Life of Plants, I found myself muttering “excuse me” every time I stepped on the grass.
Conventional wisdom is that African violets like a south-facing window in winter but not in summer, and a north-facing window in summer but not winter, and that they always like an east- or west-facing window. I think that more important is what kind of window treatment you have. Since the plants really don’t like to move, you might sacrifice your blinds for those sheer voile curtains that filter rather than block out sunlight. More important than the direction the light comes from is that your windows be well-insulated from winter drafts. African violets can’t tolerate drafts and chill, and temperatures below 60 degrees F will kill them.
So really, once you set a group of African violets together on a pebble-filled tray that is refilled with water whenever the soil in the pots feels dry, you can pretty much sit back and relax. Just take off the spent blooms and tell the plants how beautiful they look. Fertilize them occasionally, but not too much or too often. Overfertilization is fatal. For three months of the year, don’t fertilize them at all, but give them a rest, and they will bloom all the more when fed again. There are lots of plant foods designed specifically for them — but they will like your leftover coffee grounds mixed with washed and dried crushed eggshells, too.