While African violets are traditional favorite houseplants around the world, there are more than a hundred of their cousins in the Gesneriaceae (ges-ner-ee-AY-see-ee) family. All of them like the same temperatures we like in our homes and are able to give us color and interest indoors.
One of the best places to see and to buy some of these less known plants at reasonable prices is the upcoming African Violet Show and Sale at the Farm Bureau, 100 S. Mulrennan Road, Valrico, Feb. 21-22. It will be open from noon to 5 p.m. on Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. I plan to get there early.
A few years ago I bought some Episcias, sometimes called trailing violets. These have gorgeous textured foliage in colors of green, bronze, silver, and brown. That would almost be enough, but they also have tubular flowers of white, yellow, lavender, pink and red-orange. And they are easier to grow than African violets for me.
There are at least 10 species and many more varieties. They like a spongy soil and will grow well near any window but will bloom least near a north window. And they bloom profusely under artificial lights left on 12 to 14 hours a day.
Like African violets Episcias do best with wick watering, since they don’t like water on their leaves. If you go to the show, ask about this. It’s easy to do with material found in most homes and it constantly gives the plants proper amounts of water. You can put in liquid fertilizer in the water, as needed. If you place the plants on trays of wet pebbles for humidity, they do even better. But mine grew well without. They also do well on a porch or patio when temperatures are not too hot or cold, but don’t expose them to rain. And they’re easy to multiply from cuttings.
I once had a Streptocarpus or cape primrose that bloomed indoors in the winter even in our much-heated house in Iowa. These will grow near any window or in artificial light. While violets usually have one bloom stem per leaf axil, these produce six to 10 stalks in succession from each leaf. So a mature plants gives much bloom.
They’re easy to propagate. Any 2-inch length of leaf will root and can give 20 to 60 plantlets. Each one, potted, can start to bloom in one to three months. About every five to six months, re-pot the plant – dividing it if needed. Remove some of the old soil and rootball and add fresh soil. These plants don’t like temperatures higher than 80 degrees, so don’t put them on the patio.
Chiritas are among the latest gesneriads introduced to the market. They’re grown both for their attractive leathery foliage, which is sometimes mottled with silver, as well as for their delicate and beautiful tube-shaped flowers that come in lavender, white and yellow and are produced in clusters on long, slender stalks. Both the leaves and stems are hairy.
There are some 150 different species. Most are native to China and the surrounding area. They take much the same care as African violets.
I can’t wait to visit the show and buy some of each.
Today’s pick is the Columnea (kol-LUM-nee-uh), of which there are several species and hybrids.
This one is also called the goldfish plant, since the flowers are similar in shape and color. All are cousins of the African violet, but this variety is sturdy enough to survive outdoors in partial to light shade in Florida. It should be brought inside in the winter. A near cousin is the lipstick plant that also can grow outdoors during the warm months. They bloom repeatedly year round.
Now’s the time to explain a bit about wick watering. Most of the African violet growers use this method of automatic watering. Each pot has a wick, acrylic yarn or a strip of panty hose between the inside of the pot and down through the hole in the bottom. The pots sit on top of plastic containers of water and the wick goes down through a hole in the container, which can come from your kitchen or be purchased. Most growers add liquid fertilizer twice a month and change and clean the containers when they turn green with algae about once a month.
* The Tampa African Violet Society will meet at 10 a.m. Friday at the Seffner-Mango Library, 410 N. Kingsway Road, Seffner. Master Gardener Eileen Hart will present a program on ferns. A plant raffle will be held and growing tips offered. For more information, call (727) 871 2014 or (813) 681-1910.
* “Florida Friendly Landscaping 101: Water Wise and Dollar Smart” will be held again this year at the Dale Mabry campus of Hillsborough Community College, 4001 W. Tampa Bay Blvd., Tampa, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. The event and parking are free. Register online at waterwiseanddollarsmart.eventbrite.com.
* Also on Saturday, I will be giving a talk on Tips of Easy Gardening at 11:30 a.m. at Sunken Gardens, 1825 4th St. N., St. Petersburg. There is no charge for the talk other than general admission to the garden, which is $8 for adults and $6 for seniors.
Monica Brandies is an experienced gardener, freelance writer and author of 11 gardening books who can be reached at email@example.com, or you can visit her website.