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Beyond the African Violet


Beyond the African Violet: Meet the Family

Some of the most beautiful and easily grown plants for the home are members of the Gesneriad (pronounced either “jez-NARE-ee-ad or “guess-NARE-ee-ad) family, or Gesneriaceae in botanical Latin. The family, named for the Swiss botanist Konrad Gesner, is highly diverse, and while most of the more than 120 genera and 2000 species in the family are unfamiliar to even accomplished horticulturists, almost everyone is familiar with the African violet. Gesneriads can be found in the Americas from Mexico to Chile, in East, West and South Africa, Madagascar, Southeast Asia, Polynesia, Australia and New Zealand, China, Japan and southern Europe.

Although a number of species grow in temperate climates in mountainous regions, most gesneriads are tropical or semi-tropical. Gesneriads are usually grown for their blossoms and, given good light, most will bloom for long periods. Many can be grown in the average home; they are often comfortable in typical household conditions and are good candidates for the novice grower. In addition to the beautiful and well known African violets that are always available at Behnke Nurseries, you’ll find several other easy-to-grow members of this family. On your next visit let us introduce you to the following African violet cousins.

Sinningia speciosa – Gloxinia

Originally from Brazil, “florist” gloxinias are grown for their showy, tubular, bell or trumpet shaped flowers. The flowers have beautifully ruffled edges and are borne well above the large, velvety leaves. To grow well and last for many years gloxinias need humidity, full sun in winter and shade in summer. To save the plant after blooming, it needs a two to four month dormant period in a cool dark spot, so that the foliage may die back to the tuber. The large leaves tend to be quite brittle, and you will want to place the plant somewhere where people won’t brush up against them. Oftentimes the plants are shipped in a semi-wilting state to prevent leaf breakage.

Aeschynanthus – Lipstick Plant

An easy to grow gesneriad, this trailing plant with thick leathery or waxy leaves is usually grown in hanging baskets. From summer to winter it bears brightly colored tubular flowers in shades of red, orange, pink or yellow. A. radicans with its red blooms extending from a purplish tubular calyx is the best known species. The flowers resemble a lipstick extended from its tube, hence the common name. Grow this plant in brightly filtered light to encourage flowering; water freely during the warm months, more sparingly in winter.

Episcia – Flame Violet, Chocolate Soldier Plants

These plants are valued for their soft, colorful, puckered foliage. Leaves are produced in short-stemmed rosettes or whorls of large leaves and on trailing runners (stolons) on which smaller leaves appear. Foliage colorations range from pale pink, white and green to dark red and chocolate brown. The brightly colored, five lobed flowers are borne singly or in small clusters from spring to autumn. Grow in bright filtered light with high humidity. Keep evenly moist during growth and flowering, barely moist during winter.

Streptocarpella – Streptocarpella

The small, thick, often hairy leaves of streptocarpella are borne on arching stems that hang beautifully over the edge of a pot. Flowers are small but numerous, especially in summer, and range in color from pale lavender to deep purple. The more modern hybrids bloom throughout the year with only moderate light. Grow in lightly filtered bright light, keep moist during growth and flowering.

As a generalization, Gesneriads have delicate root systems that may be burned by concentrated fertilizers. Feed at the label rate (or half the label rate) with African violet food to encourage blooming.

Also, the leaves are very sensitive to water burn. This occurs when water that is 10 or 15 degrees warmer or colder than the air temperature falls on the leaf. Hence, we recommend that you water with “room temperature” or lightly warm water, and avoid wetting the leaves. (Some suggest putting water in the saucer to allow the plant to wick it up from below. Be careful with this approach, however — it is often impractical and can lead to a build up of salts and ultimately root burn).

Nematanthus – Goldfish Plant

This is another trailing gesneriad grown primarily in hanging baskets. Foliage is small and fleshy. The delightful orange pouched flowers resemble goldfish. Nematanthus need at least four hours of bright, lightly-filtered light and protection from drafts and dry air.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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