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The African violet is a prized house plant favored for its colorful blooms and velvet-like leaves. When things go wrong though, they lose their vigor fast.
If you’re worried that your African violet’s dying, know that relatively few things wipe this sturdy plant out. In most cases, sickly African violets can be revived.
The 3 Key Elements to Get Right for Essential African Violet Care
1 – Watering
Like any indoor potted plant, excessive moisture is the most common cause of disease that kills the plant. The risk is not solely from drowning the roots, but rather the fungal and bacterial infections that damp soil can encourage.
To avoid adding an excessive amount of water, the logical question to ask is how often to water African violets? However, there is no frequency for these.
There is only a guideline and that is to water when the soil is dry-to-the-touch. And when you do water the plant, use the bottom watering technique which ensures the leaves remain dry.
2 – Lighting
African violets can cope with varying intensities of light, but different seasons can cause problems if they aren’t moved to a different light source.
In the winter, relying on sunlight from north-facing windows may not provide enough light for photosynthesis. Throughout the summer, south facing windows are a risk because those get scorching heat for long periods risking burning the leaves. Burned leaves will again, effect photosynthesis.
Should you be reliant on artificial light, the recommendation from the African Violet Society of America is to use a T12 twin tube lighting system with one cool white bulb, the other warm white. This produces full spectrum lighting which is what the plant needs for both photosynthesis and for blooming.
Without having full spectrum lighting, you can find African violets either don’t bloom, bloom poorly, or lack the energy to do much of anything other than grow straggly with only yellow leaves to show for it, and even those are likely to have drooping leaves when kept under poor lighting conditions.
3 – Humidity and Air Circulation
Humidity and air circulation go hand in glove. The more crowded the plant, the higher the humidity. Too much open space though and humidity won’t be high enough.
The African violet is a tropical plant. In its original habitat, wild African violets would be thriving in 80% humidity. That is unlikely to happen indoors, but then again, these are hybrids designed for indoor growing in the West.
They have adapted well to cope with humidity ranges between 50% and 60%. Ideally, the conditions should be warm with humidity maintained around 60%.
Maintaining humidity that high may entail keeping a cluster of plants together to create a micro tropical climate. That in itself presents problems because high humidity can leave the soil moist for longer bringing things right back to the first point of excessive watering.
It can create a breeding ground for fungi, and that is what leads to disease in the African violet. Those can kill, as can the pests that damp soil attracts.
Conditions That Can Kill an African Violet
Root Burn / Fertilizer Burn
Root burn can happen if you apply a fertilizer either overly rich in nitrogen or one containing urea, which can add up to 46% more nitrogen. The ideal fertilizer for an African violet is one that is both free from urea, and lower in phosphorous.
If you notice soon after applying fertilizer that the leaves are suddenly greener than green, it likely has too much nitrogen in the soil. An effective way to go about fixing fertilizer burn in any potted plant is to flush the soil.
Without caring for the roots, every other part of the plant can go downhill fast.
Bortrytis Blight (Gray Mold)
Gray mold is a fungal infection caused by the Botrytis cinerea fungi. On African violets, it tends to show up on dead or decaying tissue. The cause can be too high a humidity level, or the plant lacking sufficient air circulation.
Treating the plant involves isolating it from others as the pathogen can spread to nearby plants. Once the plant is isolated, prune off the damaged plant tissue, and treat the plant with a fungicide.
Root Rot / Stem Rot / Crown Rot
African violets can suffer from rot in the roots, the crown or the stem. In all cases, the symptoms start at the base of the plant (root rot), then travel through the plant causing the base of stems to rot, then finally leading to crown rot. By the time crown rot sets in, most of the roots will be rotted to death, or barely surviving.
The cause is too much water in the soil. Moist soil is a breeding ground for the two funguses that cause rot: Pythium or Phytophthora.
Excessive watering can be because of a lack of drainage from the soil quality or the pot not having a drainage hole. Both can result in the soil being too moist for too long. When that happens, rot can set in.
These fungal infections will kill the plant if it is not repotted in a clean soil and the problem’s rectified.
Treatment for Root Rot
There are several methods on how to fix root rot in plants, but each is reliant on catching the problem early.
Whether you see the rot in the roots, stem or crown, it is always the roots that need to be treated as that is the source of the problem.
Healthy parts of the root system can be treated with a fungicide, then the plant can be repotted in a sterile potting mix. Damaged parts of the plant should be trashed.
Insects to Be on the Watch For
Cyclamen and Broad Mites
On a range of house plants, spider mites and aphids are the problem pests. For the African violet, the threat is from broad mites. These can be as small as 0.2 mm in length. Spotting these is difficult, but the damage they do will be evident.
Mites are similar to spiders, just with less legs but still being web-spinners. As such, if you notice webbing on the leaves of any part of an African violet, isolate it to prevent these mites from spreading to other house plants. They tend to favor tropical plants kept indoors.
Cyclamen mites are usually under 1 mm in overall size. These are green in color, or transparent making them impossible to spot. You need to be looking for the webbing because they also shy away from light by hiding out in the crevices of the plant tissue and in the buds of new growth.
Broad mites are fast movers, but all species of mites are fast breeders. Each can cause extensive damage to the plant’s leaves, and its feeding system. When that happens, photosynthesis is slower resulting in the plant struggling to create the food it needs for survival.
The only way to aid recovery is to isolate the plant, treat it with an insecticide, such as Neem oil, and make sure to use fresh potting soil in case dormant eggs hatch. These are fast breeders so whenever you get a small number of mites, an infestation can quickly invade the plant.
Mealybugs are much easier to spot than mites. These can be up to a quarter of an inch in size. The giveaway in appearance is the cotton-like body. On the leaves of plants, mealybugs look like white fuzzy balls, or lumps on the leaves. They are soft bodied insects and they are leaf piercing too.
They pinch into the plant tissue to feed on the juices. The more there are on the plant, the more nutrients the plant loses to mealybugs.
It can show up as symptoms of underwatering such as wilting, and drooping more frequently, leading to excessive watering because plant parents think it needs a drink. Root rot becomes a risk over the long-term if the problem isn’t fixed.
The short-term risk is the loss of light to the leaves from black sooty mold.
As mealybugs travel across the leaves, they excrete honeydew. This is a sticky substance that coats the leaves. When this turns to mold, the leaves look like they’ve turned black. The soot-like substance can be wiped off, but while it is on the leaves, it will block photosynthesis.
At that point, not only is the plant being robbed of nutrients, but the fewer minerals it does have, it will not be able to use because of the lack of light being absorbed by the leaves.
It will struggle to fight an infestation. Worse yet, weakened plants attract more pests such as aphids. Mealybugs can be the single pest that invites a myriad of problems.
Root Knot Nematodes
Unlike the other bugs mentioned previously, these are plant killers.
There are two types of nematodes that can kill the African violet. Root knot nematodes and foliar nematodes. These are like microscopic roundworms that feed from inside of the plant.
The foliar nematode causes extensive leaf damage, while the root nematode decimates the roots, killing African violets faster. Both of these are parasitic nematodes. Not the beneficial type like ladybugs that are predatory nematodes.
The parasitic types are killers of small plants with shallow roots. The African violet does not stand a chance with these.
Symptoms of a parasitic nematode presence in the roots of an African violet are chlorosis (leaves turning yellow), leaf edges curling downward, wilting, failure to bloom and stunted growth.
The one give away sign of a nematode presence is shot holes in the leaves indicating there are foliar nematodes feeding from the inside out. All other pests feed from the outside in.
You will not see nematodes in the soil or the leaves. Only the damage they cause. These are the only bug that will kill an African violet.
Knowing that, you can rest-assured that if you can see the pest, or the symptoms of any other insect problem like webbing, you can spring into action, learn how to get rid of bugs on African violets, then start nursing the plant back to health.
The only times an African violet will certainly die is if there are parasitic nematodes inside the roots or leaves, or the roots have all decayed from rot. Everything else is treatable with a fungicide or insecticide, depending on the problem.