Sauk County Gardner: Propagating African violets

By: 
Jeannie Manis

“In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.” ~Alice Walker

Last week when I was in the grocery store, I noticed a nice assortment of blooming African violets and they reminded me of my grandma. When I was kid, my grandma’s east-facing kitchen window was always full of African violets. She had a wide assortment of colors and variety of different flower types: Single, double, ruffled, and even white-edge ones. She was regularly propagating her favorites to share with us and always on the lookout for new and different ones to add to her collections. I always thought they were difficult to grow so I never had them as houseplants. I finally acquired one when my daughter gifted me one from her African violet that needed dividing. Not only has it survived, it’s thriving so the sight of those grocery-store African violets made me want to grow a few more. Of course, I don’t want to just grow them; I want to propagate them like my grandma did so I can eventually enjoy and share even more blooms.

Propagating African violets is not really difficult if you take the time to learn what they need in regard to moisture and soil. (If you purchase a plant, check to label to make sure it does not say “propagation is prohibited”. If the label says that, it means you can’t take a cutting for propagating new plants.)

African violets do not like excess water. It’s important to select a well-drained soilless potting mix when you propagate. A combination of half vermiculite and half perlite or pre-packaged African violet mix should work well. The key is to have a growing medium that is light-weight and retains water without being too damp or dry. Soak the potting mix and allow it to drain. If it’s too wet, the leaf will rot. Then fill a small pot with the mixture for each cutting you are going to take.

Now it’s time to take your cuttings. When looking at your African violet plant, you’ll notice the leaves grow in circles around a center stem. Select leaves from the middle where the leaf stems will be tender and not too tough. The smaller leaves are too young and other older outer leaves are too tough - both leaf types will not propagate well. Cut the leaf off close to the base of the plant using a sharp knife to avoid damaging the rest of the plant. First cut the leaf stem to about a half inch long. Then make a second cut at 45 degrees so that when the leaf is fuzzy side up, the cut-side is facing up. The growing medium should be light-weight and retain water without being too damp or dry. This will encourage more root and plantlet production that will be in front of the rooted leaf. If you like, dip the stem in rooting hormone prior to planting, shaking off the excess. Poke a hole in the growing medium and insert the leaf so it sits at an angle, fuzzy side up with bottom of the leaf just above the soil. Firm the medium around leaf stem.

The next step is to create a mini greenhouse for cuttings. You have a variety of options – you can use a cloche, plastic baggy, a recycled plastic to-go clamshell container, or a plastic tray with a clear cover designed for planting seeds or small plants. I’m using a few clear containers that I have from some take-out salads. They just need to be big enough to fit the pots in them and keep the leaves upright when closed. If the leaves are too tall, you can cut off the top half of the leaf. Close the lid tightly so you create a warm, humid greenhouse. Put the container in place that has bright, indirect light and is about 70 to 75 degrees during the day, 60 to 65 degrees at night. Unless you keep your house really cold at night or really warm during the day, normal household temps should suffice. You’ll need to keep the growing medium moist, but not soggy. Before watering, check for condensation. No water is needed if there’s condensation.

Now comes the hard part – waiting for your new African violet babies to appear. In about eight to twelve weeks, you should notice small leaves growing at the soil level. Once the cutting has at least four strong leaves, you can transplant the African violet into a pot filled with African violet mix. 

To learn more about caring for your newly propagated African violets and to encourage them thrive and bloom, visit https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/african-violets/.

Remember to contact Extension Sauk County if you have any gardening questions. Please send an email to haley.weisert@saukcountywi.gov or call the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension Sauk County office at 608-355-3250.

Jeannie Manis is president of the Sauk County Master Gardeners Association (SCMGA).