African violets (Saintpaulia) are one of my favorite houseplants! I know I’m not alone in my preference because as an extension agent I received many a phone call from distressed “indoor gardeners” about how to care for them. It’s easy to enjoy the flowers of these tropical plants in beautiful shades of white, purple and pink. But as beautiful as African violets are, they can be equally as tricky to grow. So here are a few helpful hints to keep your African violets happy and healthy!

Variegated African Violet

With such interesting foliage and pretty flowers, it’s no wonder African violets are such popular houseplants!

Photo Credit: Donna W. Moramarco

Leaf spot

The damage spot on this leaf is a classic example of African violet cold injury – cold water got on the leaves.

Photo Credit: Megan Bame

To begin, sunlight is key. Many indoor houseplants are prized for their ability to grow in low-light conditions, but African violets just aren’t one of them. In fact, they grow and flower best when they have full sun indoors. This means you should position them within 4 feet of a south-, east-, or west-facing window. And while full sun is great, too much of a good thing is bad. So try to keep them out of direct sunlight in the afternoon if possible.

Your violets will “tell” you if they’re not getting enough light when their leaves become thin and dark green. Also, the stalks of the leaves (petioles) will elongate because the plant will actually try to stretch itself to get more light! Insufficient light is also the main reason African violets fail to flower. All it may take to jumpstart the blooms on your favorite African violet is moving it to a sunnier spot!

Getting sufficient light isn’t the only quirk about African violets. Watering also poses some challenges. This seemingly easy task is one surrounded by myths when it comes to these tropical plants. Have you ever heard that you have to water African violets from the bottom? Not true. Equally misleading is the idea that watering over the leaves will cause the leaves to die.

The truth is that contact with extremely cold water can cause the leaves to exhibit cold injury. The shock of the cold water damages the cell walls, which means the leaves will lose chlorophyll. That amounts to blotches or ring spots on the leaves. Affected foliage is permanently damaged, so it certainly is important to take care when watering from above. Avoiding the problem is easy though: Use room temperature water, or water the soil directly, avoiding any leaf contact.

If you’re still inclined to water from the bottom, here’s another reason not to: You need to flush out salts that build up in the pot. By using fresh water to water from the top, you’ll wash the harmful minerals away. If you continually water from the bottom, the salts will be repeatedly pushed into the root zone (rather than out of the pot), and they can injure the plant.

Now, I know you’re left with the question: How often should I water? Yes, this is also a difficult issue because both over- and under-watering can lead to plant death. One of my favorite horticulture professors recommends using a portable moisture meter to determine how often to water. As Dr. Stu Warren puts it, “Use your finger!”

Touching the soil with your fingertips is the best way to determine whether or not the plant needs a drink. If it’s dry to the touch, water the plant until you see water coming out of the pot’s drainage holes. Go back to your plant 10-20 minutes later and discard that excess water on the bottom, so it isn’t reabsorbed into the pot. If your containers don’t have drainage holes (and I recommend that they do) it’s very possible your plants could suffer from root rot damage because they’re sitting in too much water.

So let’s review. To keep your African violets healthy, they just need a couple of things: lots of bright sunlight + water at room temperature = blooming beauties to keep your home cheery all year round!