It seems like everywhere you shop, whether it’s the big box stores or the local supermarket, you can find African violets for sale. They may be the most popular flowering houseplants in the United States. Despite their reputation for fussiness, they’re really not that hard to grow. Yes, they are from Africa, but they’re not true violets. 

African violets were discovered in 1892 by the German Gov. Baron Walter von St. Paul in what is now Tanzania. The genus Saintpaulia was named in his honor. The coastal Usambara mountains of this East African country are the only place on earth where these flowers grow in the wild. They thrive in the cool, moist, shade of these rocky cliffs. 

These are the conditions we’re trying to mimic when we grow African violets at home. Their distinctive velvety green leaves are covered in fine hairs and have a fleshy texture. Their tiny flowers come in many colors, from blue to violet, lavender, pink, red and white.

African violets are easy to grow, but the trick can be getting them to bloom. Here’s what works for me and Rachel. If you can walk around comfortably in your home, then African violets will probably do well. They prefer a temperature range between 65 and 80 degrees. They also like a relative humidity of 50 percent. Most homes are drier than this, so you may want to grow them in the kitchen. We place our plants on a stand near a south-facing window. Rotate the plant every week or so, because the leaves radiate from the center and grow toward the sunlight. Rotating the pant helps to maintain its symmetry.

African violets do best in a loose, porous soil where the roots can grow freely. There are several potting mixtures that are specifically designed for African violets. These are available in most garden centers. Place the plant in a pot that is only lightly bigger than the plant itself. Take care not to compact soil. Violets produce the best blooms when the roots are touching all sides of the container. Each year, upgrade to a slightly bigger pot.

Watering properly is probably the trickiest aspect of growing African violets. There are two ways to water them. The first is watering from above. Water the plants thoroughly. Take care not to wet the leaves. Water should flow freely through the bottom of the pot. Remember not to use soft water. Soft water contributes to the accumulation of harmful salt. 

Ideally, let the water sit for 24 hours. This will allow chlorine in the water to dissipate. Allow the soil to become somewhat dry, but not thoroughly dry, between watering. If you can’t feel any moisture at all with your fingertips, then the soil is too dry. Rachel prefers to water our African violets from the bottom of the pot. She paces the entire pot in a shallow container of water. This allows the water to be absorbed through the drainage holes on the bottom. She lets it sit in the pot until all water has been absorbed. After a while, this all becomes second nature.

There are several fertilizers on the market that are specifically formulated for African violets. Just use as directed. In general, a balanced formula with the three essential elements of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) will do, such as 10-10-10 or 14-12-14. Make sure that whatever you use is 100 percent water soluble. Otherwise, the elements might not be readily available for plant absorption. Most commercially prepared fertilizers contain sufficient trace elements as well.

Groom your African violets regularly. Remove all dead leaves and spent flowers. Wipe off dust and debris with a soft, moist cloth. Whether you buy your African violets from a big box store or the grocery store, with the proper care, they will provide you with pretty flowers and lush foliage for many years.

Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at rnlyes@hotmail.com