The African violet may just be the perfect houseplant. It blooms readily and has no specific flowering season, so it can be in bloom year-round. And it's easy to multiply and share with others. As a result, it's found worldwide, from the Far North to the Antarctic, anywhere there's a cozy windowsill for it to grow on.
Its genus name is Saintpaulia, for Baron Walter von Saint Paul, who discovered it in 1892 growing wild in what is now Tanzania. The most common species is ionantha, meaning “with flowers like a violet,” an apt description, since the wild plant has purple-coloured flowers with two small upper lobes and three larger lower ones, much like the violets (Viola spp.) that grow in Canadian woodlands. Despite their similar appearance, African violets are members of the Gesneriaceae family, which also includes houseplants such as florists' gloxinias (Sinningia speciosa syn. Gloxinia speciosa), cape primrose (Streptocarpus spp.) and columneas.
The popularity of the African violet is largely due to its ability to thrive indoors. Of tropical origin, it appreciates the year-round warmth of centrally heated homes; its thick, hairy leaves are quite resistant to indoor dry air.
It can also cope with less light than most other flowering plants, although bright, even illumination remains the primary key to successful flowering. Though the plant needs bright light, too much direct sun can harm it. From late spring through early fall, look for a spot that gets bright light most of the day with little full sun in the afternoon. In winter, move the plant to an east window, or a metre or so back from a southern or western one to avoid direct sun. Let the plant tell you what it needs: long, stretching petioles and leaves that bend toward the sun, or lack of bloom indicate insufficient light, while dense, compact, hard growth with bleached-out leaves tells you the plant is getting too much light.
Keep the growing mix (peat-based houseplant mix is fine) slightly moist; wait until it feels dry, then water abundantly, drenching it. Wet leaves can result in leaf spot, so it's best to water from below by pouring tepid water into the plant's saucer and letting it soak up what it needs. After 20 to 30 minutes, drain any surplus. Fertilize young plants with a foliage-plant fertilizer rich in nitrogen; mature ones need a flowering-plant type, richer in phosphorus. Ideally, add one-quarter of the recommended rate at each watering.