After writing last week’s column on African violets, I reminisced about a large group of related plants, plants in the same family, with similar attributes, especially striking floral colors and shapes and a fantastic selection of foliage. They, along with the violets, are members of the gesneriad family, the gesneriaceae. While the African violet, Saintpaulia ionantha, originated in eastern Africa, those that we are looking into today are mainly from northern South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
The first today is the columnea plant; we know it as the flying goldfish plant because of the orange color of the flower and the fact that it actually looks like a guppy. In its native habitat it grows on tree limbs and rocks and takes it nourishment from the air and water and from the tree itself. Because of this we plant it in a soil medium like sphagnum moss. It is airy and does not pack down and holds water well, but it dries slowly, making taking care easy. This plant requires bright light, but not burning bright, and good air circulation. Allow it to dry between waterings.
The goldfish plant does best in a hanging basket. Be careful not to place it too close to the ceiling because it is a hanging basket. It is too hot up there, and there never seems to be good light. I like it best hanging at eye level in one of the macramé hangers that were so popular in the days of the hippies. It will thrive at temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees. Yes, you can still find them from time to time in our home improvement stores and garden centers. Treat this plant right, and you will be rewarded with a continual array of bright orange “goldfish.” But do remember that once a hanging stem has finished flowering, cut it off to make way for the next ones that will be filling the space.
And then there are the episcias, frequently called flame violets. Also closely related to the African violet, its flowers are not as bright and significant as the columneas and violets, but its foliage is magnificent. There is one named hybrid, chocolate soldier, my favorite, that has beautiful chocolate leaves with lightly orange-tinted veins.
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Grow this plant in the same soil as you would for your African violets. You can make your own excellent mix by using two parts of peat moss and one part of vermiculite or perlite and one part sand. Episcias like the same growing conditions as the violet: high filtered light, general household temperatures and high humidity. This humidity is very important for it to thrive. As we said about violets, you might fill a pie tin with gravel and keep the water just below the surface and set the plant or plants on it. If you have a lot of plants, put this one right in the middle of them; the humidity is high there. I have a friend who has a small fountain sitting among her several violet and episcia plants. I believe that they should be fertilized every other week, or at least once a month, with a half-strength soluble fertilizer.
Every few years another gesneriad, the streptocarpus, rises to the top and then fades after a few years. I like this plant because it has lush green foliage that hugs the pot and then sends up 6- to 8-inch stems with beautiful bell-shaped flowers. I’ll make it easier: The common name is cape primrose. It is a wonderful plant for folks who find African violets too difficult, and like something along those lines. As a matter of fact, the easiest way to kill a cape primrose is to over-water it.
The leaves of this plant are generally 6 or so inches long and 3 or 4 inches wide. Of course, you can propagate from seed. This is more fun. Cut off a healthy leaf, remove the center vein and stand the leaves upright, cut side down, on a pot of the soil you use for all such plants. Keep it moist and within weeks, you will be rewarded with two or three to a dozen plantlets from each leaf.