Iíll never forget the first trailing African violet I saw, cascading from its pot down over the edge of the sales counter at the Carousel of Violets in Winston-Salem. I had no clue that African violets grew in such a fashion, and Iíve been entranced by trailers ever since.
Trailing African violet (AV) varieties originate from a different species than the single rosette forms we're more familiar with. The regular African violets you see in the supermarket have been hybridized largely from Saintpaulia ionantha. Trailing AVs get their habit from Saintpaulia pendula, a plant that clings to hillsides and rocky outcrops in Tanzania.
Trailing African violets can be standard, semi-miniature, or miniature in size. You can find them in a wide range of leaf shapes, foliage types, and blossom colors, just as with their non-trailing cousins. If you're new to growing AVs, you'll find some basic tips in "African Violets 101: Caring for your new plant." Trailing African violets are as sturdy as their regular counterparts and like the same growing conditions of bright indirect light and a light, well-draining potting mix.
How do you know you have a trailing variety if you don't know the name of your plant? Non-trailing plants can still sucker and develop multiple crowns. A neglected plant can develop such a long "neck" that it seems to crawl right over the rim of its pot, but that doesn't make it a trailer. We've discussed this in the past on the African Violet forum and come to this consensus: trailers tend to have leaves all the way to the soil surface rather than a bare neck. On a multi-crowned plant, check below a branch point between two crowns. If the stem has leaves below this branch point, your plant is most likely a trailer.
Regular African violets are generally grown with a single, central crown, and any developing suckers are removed. With trailing African violets, on the other hand, you want to encourage suckers to form multiple crowns for a spreading, sprawling, tumble of a plant. If you look closely at a trailer, you'll often see small suckers forming along the stem. You can tell sucker leaves from ordinary new leaves by their orientation. New suckers usually have a pair of opposing leaves. As they develop, suckers will have 4 or more leaves radiating outward from one spot, eventually growing in to a distinct crown of leaves.
What if your trailer remains stubbornly single-crowned? If you want your plant to trail, you'll have to screw up your courage and remove the crown of the plant, cutting the stem below the first few rows of leaves. As "insurance," in addition to rooting the crown, you may wish to stick a leaf and propagate a new plant or two. A less drastic step to encourage suckering would be to deliberately injure the growing tip of the crown rather than removing it entirely.
Depending on the habit of the variety, you may want to let it cascade over the edge of the pot or grow it like a ground cover in a wider pot. Some varieties form long runners that would look great tumbling over the edge of a small hanging basket. Others are more compact, resembling a regular AV with multiple crowns. Trailing African violets look wonderful in wide, shallow pots. You may be able to see root "bumps" forming along a runner. The stem can root anywhere along its length, just like groundcover plants in your garden.
Just because trailers can become wide doesn't mean they need big, deep pots. As they grow larger, most trailers do best in wide, shallow pots: no more than two and a half inches deep for standards and less than that for miniature and semi-miniatures. As with any African violet, rotate the plant with respect to the light every week or so for symmetric growth.
Where do you find appropriate pots for trailers? Check out the bonsai section of your local nursery. Shallow, oval pots seem especially good with trailing miniatures. Plant saucers can make great pots, as long as they hold a couple inches of potting mix and can be drilled for drainage. Try using decorative dishes as cache pots. Look for shallow plastic containers that fit inside the decorative pot. Recycled take-out containers are often a perfect fit. Poke a few holes in the bottom for drainage and bottom watering.
For something different, try a shallow hanging basket. Most likely, you won't find a pre-made plastic hanging basket that's shallow enough to suit African violets. However, you may be able to drill three equally spaced holes near the rim of a deep plant saucer and attach wires or cords for hanging. Or you could find a suitable container and make a macramé holder for it.
Growing trailing African violets isn't much different from growing their non-trailing cousins. A few grooming and training tips and a bit of patience will help you grow full, branching trailers with the potential to out-bloom any "regular" AV on your shelf. Seek out one or two trailing African violets to add to your houseplant collection. You'll be charmed by their unique beauty!
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Thanks to begoniacrazii, M3rma1d, and Hilbilly_Gran for their photos of 'Teeny Bopper'. All other photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.
'Teeny Bopper' is a micro-miniature AV. The "large" mature plant in the center photo above was less than four inches across. This specimen was grown by June Fallow of Pittsburg, CA, and won first place at the 2006 Delta Gesneriad and African Violet Society show.
About Jill M. Nicolaus
Better known as "Critter" on DG, Jill lives in Frederick, MD, where she tries to fit as many plants as possible into a suburban back yard. Sunshine Girl's crocus lawn (a gift from her DG "family") is in bloom, so Spring is on its way! We're looking forward to sowing seeds, picking daffodils, and looking for Easter Bunny Apprentices.
(Images in my articles are from my photos, unless otherwise credited.)