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African violet seeds?! December 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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African violets. They’re plants people seem to love to hate, and our friend Ben doesn’t understand why. Even Tasha Tudor, whose gentle children’s book illustrations have enchanted generations, had nothing but harsh words for African violets: “They’re loathesome. It’s their velvet look.”

Well! Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood beg to differ. We love their velvet rosettes of round leaves, and their cheerful flowers that sparkle in a way that reminds us of daylily blooms—the petals of both seem sprinkled with diamond dust. As with all flowers, except for peonies and roses, we only love the single blooms; doubles disgust us, overfat and overstuffed, losing the individuality that separates, say, a tulip from a rose. (Mind you, we love single-flowered roses and peonies, too.) Please keep your double-flowered hollyhocks and clematis and amaryllis and African violets and daylilies and daffodils to yourself, or better still, compost them. Ugh!!!

Getting back to African violets, we find them generous and undemanding houseplants. Like orchids, they bloom for months at a time, asking for surprisingly little in return. We grow ours on a shelf under the skylight in our sunny kitchen, water them when dry, occasionally think to add liquid seaweed and SUPERthrive (a natural mix of vitamins and plant hormones) to their water, and otherwise just sit back and enjoy the show. Ours have never needed repotting or any special care whatever, have never come down with pests or diseases, have never given us any bother beyond picking off the occasional dead leaf or flower spray. What more could you ask of any plant? (Well, two things: scent and edible fruit. But few actual houseplants provide either, though many do that flourish in our greenhouse.)

Anyway, two of our African violets, a pink-flowered and a blue-flowered, had been in bloom for some months. Eventually, African violet blooms turn from crystalline to papery and their stems dry, the signal to pull them off. But as our friend Ben was performing this chore, I saw something I’ve never encountered before: One flower stem on the pink-flowered African violet had set seed pods! Our friend Ben has encountered seed pods on many of our greenhouse plants: orchids, clivias, aloes, agaves, pelargoniums, amaryllis, the works. And it never fails to thrill me to think that our plants are providing us with the means to make more. (Though there’s always the possibility that they’ve become so desperate from my sporadic watering that they figure it’s now or never.) But I have never, ever, seen African violet seedpods before.

Shouting for Silence, I proudly showed off our latest offspring-to-be. And, after a suitable pause for oohing and aahing, we rushed to the computer to find out more about African violet seeds and what you were supposed to do with them.

Urk. Searching on our good friend Google for “African violet seeds,” we discovered that you can buy a packet of 50 from Park Seed for $3.50. Oh. Guess this wasn’t the earth-shaking phenomenon we thought it was. But hey, these were our African violet seeds. We still wanted to grow them out and see what we ended up with. But how?

Continuing our online search, we were directed to www.grownotes.com, which provided thorough directions. Search “Planting African Violet Seeds” and you’ll find their excellent post. To summarize, they emphasize that African violet seeds are minute, and suggest a very fine-milled planting medium to accomodate them. The best container for growing the seedlings is shallow, with a clear cover, like a clamshell takeout container or one of the ones you can get at an olive bar or salad bar in a grocery. (Our friend Ben thinks one of those clear plastic egg cartons might be an even better option.) They suggest punching holes in the bottom for drainage, making sure your container is big enough for the developing plants (10 x 12 inches minimum for 25 seeds), and using a layer of potting medium about 2 inches deep.

All sites our friend Ben and Silence found recommend moistening the seed-starting medium, potting soil, peat, coir, crushed perlite, peat/perlite or whatever medium you plan to plant in and draining it so it’s damp but not wet throughout. Just before sowing the seed, spray the top of the medium with a mister, then sow the tiny seeds on top of the medium (which is to say, don’t cover them, though I would suggest patting the top of the soil very lightly to ensure good seed/soil contact).

There are some quite elaborate directions to make sure your seeds don’t all end up clumped together, though you can always lift and separate them once they’ve germinated (in as little as 9 or as long as 60 days). This is another reason our friend Ben thinks the egg cartons would be a good idea: You could take a little seed “dust” on your fingertip—moistened, if necessary—and press it into each egg cup, making sure you had good separation for at least some of the plants, and thinning as needed once they came up.

What next? Close the clear top on your seedling “greenhouse,” or, if you don’t have a clear plastic top, cover your container with plastic wrap and set it 10 inches under fluorescent lights for 12-14 hours a day. Mist the top of the soil as needed when it starts to dry out, but be careful not to overwater, since the container is covered and condensation can quickly overwhelm the tiny seedlings or cause seeds to rot.

Once the seedlings have germinated, separate them and pot them on as you would any seedlings to give them room to grow. You can find special “African violet soil” in bags in every grocery and anywhere else where houseplants are sold. Your goal is to ultimately get them into 4-inch plastic pots. Once there, there are all sorts of esoteric “rules” for proper watering, feeding, etc.etc. all over the internet. But again, ours are quite simple: We do water from the top, but water the soil, not the leaves, and only when it’s dry to the touch. We give our plants bright but indirect light. We give them some organic nutrients in their water when we remember. Otherwise, it’s up to them. And, in the immortal words of Mister Spock, they “live long and prosper.”

Our friend Ben is eager to see what will happen with our first-ever African violet seed pods. But there’s one little problem: According to www.grownotes.com, it takes 4 to 6 months for an African violet seed pod to mature, and even then, there’s no guarantee that the seeds will be fertile. I guess I’ll be checking in with an update sometime in June!

Meanwhile, if you have experience raising African violets from seed, we’d love to hear from you!

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Comments»

1. mr_subjunctive - December 27, 2009

The reason why people hate them is that not everybody finds them as easy as you do. My long-term success rate is 1/19, and I kind of wonder about the one. I want to like them, I really do, but I don’t think we’re right for one another.

I’ve never seen an African violet seedpod personally, though I knew they could happen. We had a customer at the garden center ask one time if we sold African violet seeds, which request just sort of baffled everybody: only WCW had even heard of raising them from seed, and she’d never done it personally.

Ha!!! Well, I can sympathise with your wanting to like African violets and failing, Mr. S.! Either they’re effortless or they aren’t. I’ll keep you appraised about the fate of our seedpods/seedlings!

2. Robin - December 27, 2009

I’ve grown African violets from seed before. They took a really long time to germinate and grow but the seed packet provided me with many different varieties. I thought it was a fun challenge!

Thanks, Robin! Since your efforts were successful, you’ve provided me with the motivation to try to grow out my own seeds!

3. Victoria - December 29, 2009

I have one african violet given to me by my best friend, Carol. She started it from a cutting from one of her plants, so it’s very special to me. And I also really love African violet plants. Silly people who don’t!
Good luck with starting your seeds. Should be an interesting future post.

Thanks, Victoria! If any of them actually germinate, maybe I’ll offer them to blog readers who’d enjoy trying them for themselves! I’ll definitely keep you posted.

4. Barbara - April 15, 2010

I just found one enormous seed pod on my african violet last night; and there is another that is about one-third its size. I guess I’ll try my luck at raising some from seeds. Almost sounds like fun! Though last year when I bought my current plant, I did separate the “baby” plant from it and now have two 4″ potted full-blooming plants.

Go Barbara and good luck! Let us know how it turns out. And remember, you can use those babies as gifts and at plant swaps!


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