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African Violet Care & Damage Control

Q. I have two African violet houseplants that are between 15 and 17 years old. They are kept on a plant stand near a window that faces south east and were thriving until recently. One of the plants has started to wilt and droop, basically looking like it's ready to die off. I have cut back on watering as I thought maybe it was too moist, but to no avail. The top of the other one fell right off when I brushed the plant with my hand. I promptly placed the broken part (leaves, flowers and thick stem) into a glass of water. How can I save it? Can I re-root it? Or should it be put directly back into soil?

    ---Sandy in Chester County, PA

A. Whenever anyone "thinks that their plants' soil might be too moist", it's generally code for "I've been drowning them for months." So I emailed Sandy back to ask her if the pots felt heavy (a sure sign of water saturation) or very light (which would indicate lack of water).

Sandy adroitly dodged my actual question. All I could get out of her was a reply that "the pots do seem to be moister than usual." But then she added "And I was getting those little gnat things and started using the microbial Mosquito Bits to kill them about 6 months ago."

Aha! That means she's using BTI granules to try and control an infestation of fungus gnats; and those annoying little houseplant pests are themselves a sure sign of overwatering! So let's assume that she drowned the poor things. What should she do with the one in the glass of water? And is the droopy one a lost cause?"

True confession: The only thing I personally know about African violets is to not overwater them or expose them to direct sun—so I called out to Mary Schaeffer, President of the Delaware Valley Gesneriad ("Guess-near-e-ad") Society; the large plant family that African violets belong to. Both the national and local societies (like Mary's are very active—and great sources of information.

First, Mary's recommendation for the decapitated one: Take it out of the water, scrape off all the mooshey stuff (yes, she actually said "mooshey") around the stump, and remove the worst of the leaves, leaving three to six good ones. Then get a three inch pot with good drainage and fill it with a light, loose soil-free mix that contains a lot of perlite, place the cleaned-up crown in the center, water the soil mix and tamp it down lightly around the crown.

Then cover the pot loosely with a plastic bag, place it away from direct sun, heat and drafts and just leave it alone for three or four weeks. Then acclimate it back to the world by opening the bag gradually over several days. You'll know it's better when a gentle tug doesn't pull it out of the pot anymore.

I thank Mary for her expert advice, and add that I had always thought that the classic way to root African violets was with a stem cutting…

And that's her suggestion for the other plant. Take the best leaves and root them individually in two or three inch wide pots filled with a moist soil free mix with lots of perlite; and use the loose plastic bag trick for humidity. Interestingly, Mary specifically said to NOT leave a lot of stem on the leaves—just a half an inch to an inch. "The shorter the stem, the better", she told me.

I would have thought the opposite; which is why I like to pose these kinds of questions to people who actually know what they're doing. And I also learned something else—Mary says that a single rooted leaf will yield multiple plants, which should each get their own small container.

How small? Mary says to follow 'the rule of three'; the diameter of the pot should only be one-third the diameter of the plant. So if your African violet measures six inches from leaf edge to leaf edge, it should be in a two-inch diameter pot. (They really like to be rootbound.) She adds that most enthusiasts also repot their plants at least once a year—with right around now (February/March) the ideal time.

Yes, they will move them up into bigger pots, if the plants have gotten that much larger. But the main reason for an annual repotting is to make sure the soil hasn't gotten heavy over time—which is what I suspect happened to our listener's plants. Mary warns that most potting mixes are just too dense and heavy for African violets, and suggests that people use the lightest possible soil-free mix they can find, and amend that with lots of perlite.

Yes! A fellow perlite fan! Gotta love those little white pieces of popped volcanic glass; there's nothing better at improving drainage and keeping vitally-needed air around the roots of plants!

And finally, Mary's general 'keeping African violets alive and happy' advice is the little bit I already knew: Always keep the plants on the dry side and give them bright light but no direct sun—which, yes, can be very tricky. That's why people with a lot of these plants keep them under lights—the reward for which can be blooms nine or ten months out of the year!

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