In my long list of “favorite plants,” the African violet sits comfortably somewhere near the top. That’s because of its profuse and reliable blooming, the ease of care, and the mystique of being a plant native to Africa. But there’s a more personal reason in there, too.
When I was in charge of maintaining greenhouse stock at an old job, I took special pride in the condition of the African violets. For close to four years I was handling hundreds of plants (in addition to the rest of our stock) and am proud to say I lost a mere handful.
They were also a favorite plant to bring home, and in the years I’ve spent caring for these tough yet delicate plants, I’ve learned the ins and outs of the African violet. They have a well-documented history and are relatively easy to care for, but propagating them from cuttings is an exercise in pleasure.
Whether you need more violets in your own home, or are planning ahead towards Christmas, Mother’s Day, or Easter, establishing African violet cuttings is a surprisingly easy exercise. By the time you’re finished reading this, you’ll be armed and ready to start your own African violet assembly line!
Let’s Take a Trip to Africa…
Botanically named Saintpaulia for their European discoverer Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire, these flowers are native to the Unguru Mountains in Tanzania and also parts of Kenya.
Walter discovered the plant in 1892 (the first year a game of basketball was played and when Coca-Cola was incorporated, for the history buffs out there) and sent seeds to his father in Germany.
The plant was shown in Germany in 1893 and Britain in 1894, but it didn’t make its way to the United States until the 1920s. It earned a reputation as a finicky plant, difficult to care for and prone to sudden death.
This was because it required plenty of bright light, but couldn’t tolerate the chill, drafty windows of New England homes.
As cultivation practices developed, Saintpaulia became popular for its frequent mutations, developing unique flowers and leaf shapes that have gained footing, resulting in mass production. Nine main species and eight subspecies have been identified.
Unfortunately, the native cloud-forest habitat of Saintpaulia is under threat from encroaching agriculture.
National Geographic author Andrew Evans has written an eye-opening look at the delicate state of African violets in their native habitat, where unscrupulous gatherers are plucking rare species from the jungle to sell to collectors.
Caring For Your African Violet
So long as a few basic conditions are met, Saintpaulia is an amiable houseplant. One of the reasons it ranks so highly in my favor is that they seem to thrive on neglect.
Let There Be Light
African violets prefer bright but indirect light. They prefer a west-facing window during the summer and a south or east-facing window during the winter months.
Perhaps more than other houseplants, Saintpaulia benefits from a quarter turn or so every week to adjust what areas of the plant are receiving sunlight. The tight rosette pattern can quickly grow out of whack if it’s left in one place for too long.
Fluorescent grow lights work well for African violets. The best method to ensure near-constant blooming is to use artificial lighting.
Propping up a few grow lights about 20 inches away from the plants is beneficial. If you elect not to use artificial lighting, your violets will still be as happy as… well, whatever the plant equivalent of a clam is.
That’s Some High Quality H2O
Watering is the area where African violets are most temperamental. There are a few important tips to keep in mind:
Never Use Cold Water
Violets do not react well to cold water; it can cause their roots to shrivel and their foliage to die off. Room-temperature water is ideal for African violets.
Once upon a time, chlorine was the only gas used to clean drinking water. Nowadays, chloramine is also used. This is a combination of chlorine and ammonia, and it does not dissipate without filtering or special treatment.
The easiest solution to remove these substances from your water is to add a filter to your tap.
A high-quality carbon filter works best for removing these gases, and one with an indicator light when it’s time for changing is ideal. Do your plants (and your own drinking water!) a favor and pick one up. I use this one from PUR, available on Amazon, and it serves me very well!
Never Get the Foliage Wet
Water on the foliage can cause dieback, leaf spotting, and other problems.
African violets prefer their soil to be on the dry side of moist.
In my experience, there are two methods to effectively water violets, and one vastly outperforms the other. Consider it the Usain Bolt of plant watering.
The first, inferior method is to water the plants from the top with room-temperature water, being careful to avoid wetting the leaves. Then wait for the water to drain out from the bottom and return the violet to its home.
This method is difficult because it’s nearly impossible to avoid wetting the violets.
The second and vastly superior method is to fill the tray or container that your violets sit in with water. Allow it to soak into the plant for an hour. After the time’s up, drain any excess water.
This method guarantees that you will not wet the leaves of the violet. The only stipulation is that every two months or so you must water the plant from the top so that water drains from the bottom, removing any mineral buildup.
The second method, also known as the inversion method, is most effective. It’s also why you typically find African violets sold Matryoska-like in a no-frills pot stacked within a decorative pot lacking drainage holes.
Always remember that African violets are typically better off being a little dry rather than too wet.
Movin’ on Up to a Bigger Home
One of my favorite aspects of Saintpaulia is that repotting is generally not required, and often is discouraged. The plants actually bloom more powerfully and regularly when rootbound.
If you choose to mix your own soil when repotting African violets, it’s important to think of the natural habitat where these plants originated. Soil should be porous and well-draining.
If repotting is necessary or desired, aim to do so in the spring of the year.
Troubleshooting Your Violets
There’s a short list of ailments that can plague the African violet, but they are uncommon when you relax and allow the plants to do what they naturally do.
Light-Colored Patches on Leaves
This can be the result of too much direct summer sun. The edges of the leaves may turn upwards, turn yellow, or develop holes.
Brown-Colored Spots on Leaves
Uh-oh! Cold water has come into contact with the violet, leaving telltale damage.
It is believed that the application of cold water to the leaf causes the cell vacuoles to collapse.
Pale Leaves with Long Stalks
The temperature has dropped too drastically. This typically happens to plants left near a window during the winter months.
A rather innocuous problem, a lack of flowers typically indicates that the plant is getting too little light.
Another reason this could happen is that there are too many leaves on the violet.
If you look closely at the crown of Saintpaulia you will notice that leaves are arranged in a rosette pattern. Each “ring” of leaves will produce one round of blooming flowers.
To ensure more blooms it is important to prune off the largest, outermost leaves from the plant.
Limp Leaves and Rotten Crown
This can occur due to overwatering and wide temperature fluctuations. Generally, at this point, it’s best to discard the plant.
Ah, the moment we’ve all been waiting for! Propagating Saintpaulia is relatively easy. You only need a few items for the project:
- A host plant to harvest leaves from
- Rooting medium
- Rooting hormone (optional)
- A sharp knife, your pinching fingertips, or a pair of fine-tipped pruners
- A bowl for mixing soil
- Plastic 2-inch pots
- Plastic plant tags or other waterproof supports
- A clamshell to-go container made of clear plastic
The scale of this operation is up to you, the gardener. For simplicity’s sake I harvested leaves from a single plant, five total leaves for propagation. When it comes to any kind of cuttings or seed growth, it’s always better to start with more than you think you need.
That’s why I used a rooting hormone for this project, to help these cuttings establish themselves. GardenSafe Take Root Rooting Hormone is one of my favorites, and it’s available on Amazon.
Auxins are a plant hormone located in the tip of a stem that encourage elongation. Applying a rooting hormone to plant cuttings artificially beefs up the supply of auxins and helps the plant to grow stronger roots.
For the rooting medium, I made my own. But you can also pick it up at your local nursery, or find a suitable mixture online.
I suggest Miracle-Gro Perlite combined with Miracle-Gro’s African Violet Potting Mix, available on Amazon. I’ve always defaulted to perlite in the past. The difference between it and vermiculite is insignificant, and I can also readily buy perlite in these convenient 8-quart sized bags.
Miracle-Gro’s African Violet Potting Mix is excellent for many young plants. It offers a slightly acidic composition that drains well and is full of rich organic material, making it useful for more than African violets. I’ve used it for other small projects when in a bind and it works just fine!
To stir it up, any household mixing bowl will do. (Shh, I used one from our baking set; don’t tell my fiance!) A bucket or planting container without drainage holes will also do the job.
For this kind of delicate work, I prefer to use pruners, like the Fiskars Softtouch Micro-Tip Pruning Snips. These are available on Amazon.
As for those plastic pots, drainage holes are a must, and you’re looking for something small.
I used a few two-inch pots that were leftover from some succulents I purchased a few months ago. Always save those pots! You never know when you might need them.
For each leaf, you’ll require one pot around the 2-inch size for this project.
Another lesson in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – for those plastic supports, I used old plant tags. There always seem to be a few lying around. But plastic forks – or even toy Army men – could be used.
Finally, to create a mini greenhouse for your cuttings to grow inside, you will need a clear plastic to-go container, the clamshell variety.
It will need to be large enough to place your pots inside, and for the pots and the leaves they contain to remain upright when the lid of the container is closed. I got mine from the salad bar at a local grocery store.
Now, let’s get started!
First Steps to Potting
Step 1 – Prepare Your Rooting Medium
Saintpaulia prefers well-drained soil, but cuttings are even more particular.
For this project I mixed 2 parts perlite to 1 part African violet potting mix. It should look like a delicious crumbled cookie concoction.
Step 2 – Add Water
Add some water to the rooting medium, just enough to be able to clump the mixture together into a barely-there clump.
Some people say to imagine it’s like oatmeal, but I’ve never grabbed a handful of oatmeal before. It feels more like a handful of sand when you’re building the perfect sandcastle.
Step 3 – Fill Your Pots
Fill the 2-inch pots (or whatever size you have) with the rooting medium. Use a pencil or any similarly-sized object to poke holes through the soil. You’ll be placing the leaf stems in here.
Recruiting Your Future Violets
Step 4 – Choose Leaves
Remove mature and healthy leaves from the host plant. These leaves should be well-developed and healthy.
Select leaves from the middle row of the plant to use as cuttings. The leaves forming from the very center of the plant are the youngest, and the largest leaves on the outside are the oldest. The leaves in those middle rows are the best candidates for cuttings.
Make sure to remove as much of the leaf stem as possible from the crown to prevent rot in the host plant.
Step 5 – Prep Leaves
Shorten the leaf stems to about 1 inch using a knife, your fingernails, or sharp snips.
Step 6 – Apply Rooting Hormone
Before we get started with this step, recognize that rooting powder is a very mild irritant. If ingested, it can cause stomach discomfort and it can irritate any mucous membranes it comes into contact with. Gloves and eye protection are always a safe precaution, but not a requirement.
Lightly dip each stem into the rooting hormone. I’ve always dipped my cuttings right into the bottle of hormone powder, but you can shake some of the hormone onto a flat surface if you prefer. You don’t need to coat the entire leaf stem in hormone powder, as long as about half of the length of the stem gets a fine coating.
You don’t need much, only a fine coating. Carefully tap off the extra powder from the leaf stem. Like soy sauce, a little rooting hormone goes a long way.
Step 6 – Potting Up the Cuttings
Carefully place the stem of each leaf into the rooting medium. The blade of the leaf should just touch the surface of the rooting medium. The new plant rosettes will form from this area.
Firm the soil around the stems so that the leaves are upright and in place.
Step 7 – Add Support
Use the plastic plant tags (or whatever support you have chosen) to act as a stand, ensuring the leaces do not collapse into the soil.
If the leaves you cut are too tall to fit inside the container, there’s an easy fix for that.
You can make one clean cut across the top of each leaf, effectively slicing away the top half of the leaf.
Step 8 – Create a Mini Greenhouse
Place the potted and soon-to-be-beautiful African violets into the clamshell containers. Carefully close the lid tight, ensuring that the cuttings and pots all fit inside of the container.
It is vital that the container can close tightly, locking up the potted cuttings in a warm and humid environment.
Position this container in an area that is bright, but not hot.
Your ultimate goal at this point is to do your best to mimic the natural habitat Saintpaulia originates from. By placing the plants in a well-drained rooting medium and containing them in a mini-greenhouse with some bright light, you are effectively duplicating their native cloud forests.
Open the container occasionally to air out excess moisture or to add more, as necessary.
Step 9 – Transplant Those New Violets!
After a period of approximately eight weeks, your leaves should be developing into proper violets. They should have developed a few baby leaves at the base of the plant (seriously, they’re adorable) and have reached a height of about two inches.
Transfer these plants into a one-size-up container with a 1 part African Violet Mix and 1 part rooting medium mix, the same as the one we put together for the cuttings.
I love African violets. They remind me of the grandness of Africa. I may never delve into the jungles of the Congo or race across the Serengeti on a wildebeest’s back, but at least I’ll have my Saintpaulia to help me imagine the wonder of it all.
And in a few months I’ll have perfectly fine gifts to give to people for holidays and birthdays – and you can bet your bottom dahlia I’ll teach them how to propagate their own cuttings. Then we’ll all have something in common.
How are your cuttings doing? Please share with us in the comments! And if you love home propagation, let us direct your attention to this piece on getting started with succulents.
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Photos by Matt Suwak. © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via PUR, Garden Safe, Miracle-Gro, and Fiskars. Uncredited photo: Shutterstock.
About Matt Suwak
Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in gardening, bird watching, and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works under the sun as a landscaper and gardener, and by moonlight as a writer. An incessant questioning of “Why?” affords him countless opportunities to ponder the (in)significance of the great and the small. He considers folksy adages priceless treasures and is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.