Is your African Violet starting to look leggy? For many indoor gardeners, part of the appeal of these plants is the tidy, precise clusters of foliage they form. That makes it especially disappointing when the leaves appear stretched and skinny. We’ll help you understand why your African Violet is leggy and how you can make it right.
When African Violets get leggy, it usually means they’re not receiving enough light. Though these plants can’t tolerate full sun, they do like to receive lots of indirect illumination. Try moving your leggy plant closer to the window or into a room that gets more light exposure.
Bear in mind that leggy foliage won’t go back to normal even once your African Violet is getting enough light. You’ll have to wait for new, stronger leaves to grow in and replace the old ones. And remember that legginess from low light is different from the bare “necks” that African Violets develop as they age. We’ll explain how to tell these issues apart and what to do about each one.
Why Is Your African Violet Leggy?
There’s really only one reason why African Violets get leggy: lack of light. Legginess is something that happens to almost any plant grown in dim conditions.
It can be a useful adaptation in the wild. Often, when a plant isn’t getting enough light, it’s being shaded out by something else. By growing its leaves as long as possible, the plant is gambling that it can escape its neighbor’s shadow.
This trick is less useful and more annoying when you’re growing an African Violet as a houseplant. A plant that’s leggy – or etiolated, to use the scientific term – simply doesn’t look as nice. Since the leaves are longer than your Saintpaulia could normally support, they’re also thinner and weaker. The coloration often fades as well, and the spaces between leaves get larger.
The result is a sparse, pale, floppy African Violet. In many cases, the foliage also looks unbalanced because it’s trying to grow toward the nearest source of sun. And although the leaves and petioles get longer, the plant’s overall growth will be stunted by the lack of light.
How to Keep African Violets From Getting Leggy
African Violets don’t do well in direct sunlight. But the operative word there is not “sunlight” – it’s “direct”. These plants like lots of light, they just need it to be dappled or reflected as it would be in their native rainforests.
Try to make sure that your Saintpaulia receives at least 12 hours of light per day during the growing season. East-facing windows are often ideal since they get the strongest sunlight during the coolest part of the day. A bright enough north-facing window can work as well.
South and west-facing windowsills are usually too harsh for African Violets. However, if you place your plant around 6 feet from the window, it should be okay. Another option is to hang some gauzy curtains to take a bit of the sting out of the sunlight. In fact, a south-facing window with a sheer curtain makes a great light source for a Saintpaulia.
One good way to test the light conditions is to look at the shadows. If they’re very dark, with sharp edges, the light is too direct. If they’re shapeless and very faint, it’s too dim. The right lighting produces shadows with distinct shapes but slightly blurred outlines.
It’s best to rotate your plant every few days. Try giving it a quarter-turn every time you check the soil to see if it needs water. This evens out the plant’s light exposure over time, keeping it from growing in a one-sided shape.
How to Fix a Leggy African Violet
What can you do if your African Violet is already looking leggy? You should move it to a brighter spot, as we described above – but not all at once. Your Saintpaulia has grown accustomed to its dimmer surroundings. If you boost its light intake too rapidly, you could damage it.
Find a spot where you know your African Violet will get enough light. Then start leaving it there for an hour or two each day before moving it back. You can lengthen these visits by 30-60 minutes a day until it’s sitting in the new location around the clock.
If brown splotches appear on the foliage, or the leaves get crispy and brittle, your plant is sunburned. This means you’ve let it get too bright too fast. Move it back to a spot where it will get no direct sunlight. Let it recover for a few weeks and try again, making the transition more gradual this time.
Even when you’ve gotten your African Violet into a bright enough space, the leggy leaves won’t go back to normal. But over time, your plant will replace them with healthier foliage. You can prune them if you want, but wait until your Saintpaulia has enough non-etiolated leaves to support itself. A good rule of thumb is to avoid clipping more than ⅓ of your plant’s leaves at a time.
Leggy vs. Necky African Violets
Sometimes when people say their Saintpaulias are leggy, they’re not talking about stretched-out leaves. They mean that the plant has pushed itself up out of the soil on a long, bare, scaly trunk. It looks more like a miniature palm tree than a cute little tuft of leaves and flowers. To make matters worse, this stem may then flop over and start growing off to one side.
This is a very different issue than legginess. African Violet growers call this bare stem a “neck”, or sometimes a “gooseneck”, especially if it’s leaning or curving. It’s a natural part of the way these plants mature. As they get older, the central stem gets taller, and the lower leaves drop off. Any African Violet that lives long enough will grow a neck.
It’s easy to tell the difference between a leggy Saintpaulia and a necky one. On a leggy plant, the petioles – the stems connecting individual leaves to the trunk – are long and skinny. Instead of a nice cluster of slightly overlapping leaves, you get big gaps in the foliage. And the leaves themselves may be pale and limp.
If your African Violet has a bit of a neck, but the leaves and petioles look normal, it’s perfectly healthy. However, many people still find this look unsightly, especially once the plant begins goosenecking to one side.
What To Do When Your African Violet Has a Neck
If you prefer your Saintpaulia to maintain a low profile, there’s an easy solution. All you need to do is chop the plant off where it meets the soil. Disinfect your shears first by swabbing them with rubbing alcohol, or with bleach diluted to 10% strength. Next, scrape the outer layer off of the bottom of the neck to reveal the green tissue below. This will stimulate the growth of new roots.
Now you can replant your African Violet, burying the neck so that only the leafy part is aboveground. Water sparingly but keep humidity high while your plant recovers. An African Violet that’s just been de-necked is very susceptible to root rot. High humidity reduces the need for watering and encourages the roots to grow out.
A humidifier is a useful tool here. For a lower-cost approach, you can cover your African Violet with a bell jar or a clear plastic bag. This will bottle up most of the moisture, keeping the soil and the air mildly damp – just make sure it doesn’t have direct contact with the foliage.
After around a month, your African Violet should have new, healthy roots. The appearance of new leaves is a sure sign that your Saintpaulia is settled in.
Now that you know why African Violets get leggy, you should be able to help yours grow properly. Remember that a plant with a neck doesn’t necessarily need more sun, but one with skinny, weak leaves usually does. Light your Saintpaulia right and repot when needed, and it will reward you with robust, healthy foliage.