Hybridizing African Violets

Hybridizing African Violets

Hybridizing African violets is a fun hobby that will reward you with new and interesting plant varieties. Cross-pollinating African violets is easy to do and will produce seed pods within a couple of weeks. African violet seed pods usually take up to six months to mature.

Interesting striped violet
An interesting striped African violet from one of my crosses (not a chimera)

How to Hybridize African Violets

Before you begin it is always advisable to work on a clean, dry surface and to sterilize any tools you might use. Although no special tools are needed in order to cross-pollinate African violets, many people like to use manicure scissors, razor blades, toothpicks and other implements. If you choose to use tools they should be sterilized with bleach or alcohol beforehand. If you will be making several crosses with different parents and pollen sets be sure to wash your hands, work surface, and tools between crosses.

Choosing the Parent Plants

Pollen sacs on an African violet
Pollen sacs on African violet “Fool’s Gold”

The first decision is choosing which two plants to cross. You can use any two African violets that you’d like. If you’re just curious about hybridizing and want to give it a try for the first time just pick two plants that have nice qualities you’d like to see combined. (If you’re attempting to produce very specific results, such as yellow flowers over mosaic variegated leaves, or single red stars with white edges, you will need to know more about genetic traits and their inheritance patterns in order to choose parents likely to succeed in giving you the desired results. More on this later.)

The two flower parts that you need to be concerned with are the yellow anthers (pollen sacs) and the pistil (see photo). Generally speaking (there are exceptions), every African violet has both plant parts and can become either the seed parent (the ‘mother’ plant that will carry the seed pod to maturity) or the pollen parent (the ‘father’ plant or pollen donor). The plants you choose for each role matter only if you are seriously hybridizing. Otherwise, just name one the seed parent and the other the pollen parent.

Cross-Pollinating African Violet Flowers

Style on African Violet
Style on African Violet

Remove the anthers from the pollen parent or donor plant. You can pinch them off with your fingers or thumbnail, or you can snip them off with manicure scissors. Split each pollen sac in half to release the pollen. You may cut them open with a razor blade or merely use a thumbnail to split them open. “Good” pollen will be dry and powdery; if the sacs are too moist or mushy then the pollen is not good for making a cross.

Transfer the powdery pollen to the stigma (the tip of the style) of the seed parent flower. This can be done with your thumbnail, or with a small paintbrush or cotton swab. When a flower is receptive to pollination the stigma will be sticky and often visibly glistening. This usually happens within a day or two of the flower opening and can last for up to a week. Apply the pollen to the sticky end and you’re done. If the cross is successful a seed pod will begin to form and become noticeable within 10-14 days or later depending upon variety.

Maturing Seed Pods

African violet seed pods
African violet seed pods

Once a pod begins to form the flower surrounding your new seed pod will fade and wither as usual. Take care not to accidentally “groom” the pod away if you are in the habit of regularly pinching off dead and dying blooms. Tying a brightly-colored piece of yarn around the flower stem is a helpful reminder. Seed pods take anywhere from 3 to 6 months or more to mature depending upon the cross, the individual plants, and the cultural environment.

When finished maturing the pod will begin to shrink and turn brown and the flower stem will begin to shrivel. At this point you should remove the pod from the plant and let it air dry for a couple of weeks before sowing the seed or storing it for future sowing. Seeds are best stored in the unopened pod — place it in an airtight container with a desiccant and store in a dry, cool place. They can remain viable for up to two years or more if care is taken to keep them dry and cool. See Growing African Violets from Seed for detailed instructions on how to plant your new African violet seeds.

Tips for Successful Hybridizing of African Violets

Although the process of hybridizing is relatively easy there are certain things you can do to increase your success rate. Here are a few tried-and-true tips and hints:

» Use pollen sacs from old or fading blooms — they will already be quite dry and the pollen inside should be powdery. Alternately, you can use pollen sacs saved from flowers that bloomed earlier. They are easy to keep for use in future crosses by storing in a paper envelope with a desiccant.

» “Old Man, Young Lady” – As the saying goes, increase your chances of success by using an older flower for the pollen and a younger flower to receive the pollen.

» Repeat a cross (reapply pollen to pistil) several times over a period of several days to increase the odds of the cross ‘taking.’

» African violet crosses take more easily in high humidity. If you have a low-humidity growing area you can increase the humidity with pebble trays or by loosely covering the plant with a clear plastic bag. (Be sure to leave adequate ventilation to prevent condensation.)

» Desiccants – You can purchase desiccants in various forms from craft stores or any retailer of dried or pressed flower supplies. You can also collect and reuse desiccant packets from shoe and leather goods purchases — they can be reactivated over time by zapping them in the microwave on low heat for 1 minute.

» You can store unopened seed pods in a refrigerator or freezer if you seal them with desiccant in an airtight container (plastic film containers work well) inside a tightly sealed zip-type plastic freezer bag. African violet seeds stored this way can remain viable for two years or longer.

Recommended African Violet Groups:

I strongly recommend joining the AVIS Hybridisers Club, the sister group to AV International, for shared interest in and support of African violet and streptocarpus hybridizing projects. Both groups can be accessed online or via mailing list, and are frequented by leading experts in the field such as Jeff Smith and Dale Martens, renowned for her work with gesneriads &emdash; especially variegated streptocarpus varieties. Also recommended are memberships in the African Violet Society of America (AVSA) and The Gesneriad Society.

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