African violets: growing tips from a passionate collector
Betty Enticott has had a lifelong love affair with a certain African beauty – and it shows no sign of stopping.
It was almost 60 years ago that Betty Enticott saw her first African violet and commented to her husband that she rather liked the neat-looking, compact plant. Now she has one of the largest collections of African violets in New Zealand.
Back in 1959, Betty was newly married and living in Massey, Auckland. Her husband, Brian, recalled her praising the plant, and she duly received one as a Christmas gift.
"From then on, I was interested, and picked up leaves from other people, putting them in water until they rooted. I ended up with about 30 plants. Then I got a book about them and started to work out the light they needed and a potting mix – I used soil combined with coarse sand."
Betty believes she now has one of the largest collections in New Zealand – about 250 plants comprising 150-plus named varieties.
When she and Brian built a home in the Bay of Plenty 52 years ago, they included a conservatory for Betty's African violets that featured fluorescent lights to encourage flowering and fans for good air movement.
She also took over part of the laundry for her miniature plants and "plant hospital".
When they moved again in 1999, the violets went into a new conservatory, "leaked" into the laundry and expanded again.
"African violets like the conditions you and I like," says Betty. "Probably the biggest mistake is to overwater them; they have to have air round their roots, but if you overwater them, they can't get that air and develop root rot. If you put plants in a pot that's too big, you increase the risk of overwatering, as the roots are surrounded by much more wet potting mix."
One plant you won't see in her home or garden is a cyclamen, a carrier of spider mites, which also enjoy infesting African violets. Thrips are another pest, but Betty uses a potting mix that contains neem oil, which helps.
Betty's propagation tips
• Pollinated flowers can produce seed pods and the tiny seeds can be grown. The resulting plants aren't always true to the parents, but some may sport and be desirable.
• Because of this, leaf cuttings are the most common way to make new plants, and will generally be true to the parent.
• Choose a healthy, mature leaf and snip it off at the base. Trim the stem on a 45° angle to about 3cm long and pop into a pot of free-draining mix, up to the base of the leaf. Moisten the mix and put the pot in a sealed plastic bag. Put the bag in good light (not direct sun), where it's moderately warm.
• It will take about a month for roots to grow. The leaf will then begin to produce plants at the base of the stem. It will take another month for these to grow to the surface, and several more months to be of a size to be separated.
• Alternatively, put the cut leaf stem in a small bottle of room-temperature water, keeping the base of the leaf out of the water. Put the bottle in a warm spot in indirect light. When the cut end thickens, pot it up. (If you let roots form, they tend to produce weak plants.)
• To guarantee a plant true to its parent, choose a stem with a bud just about to open. Cut at the base and remove the flower, plus any buds tucked into the small pair of leaves part-way down the stem. Plant the stem as you would a leaf cutting.
Where to buy: You'll find African violets in garden centres, supermarkets and florists. German company Optimara has recently developed some new varieties, now sold in garden centres.
- NZ Gardener