Gesneriad Culture – Tips For Growing Gesneriad Plants

Gesneriad Culture – Tips For Growing Gesneriad Plants

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By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

The only place you cannot find Gesneriads growing is Antarctica. The group is a large family of flora that encompasses over 3,000 species. Simply put, gesneriads are tropical to sub-tropical plants with at least 300 types of gesneriads in cultivation. Some of these you would recognize, like African Violet and Gloxinia, but many are unique to certain parts of the world and have bold and wondrous forms.

What are Gesneriads?

Houseplant lovers will recognize many of the species in the Gesneriaceae family. Many of the plants make excellent indoor specimens and their wildly diverse forms make them a collector’s dream. Gesneriad culture can be challenging or stimulating, depending which way you look at it, but it is never dull. These plants often have sensitive systems to things like lighting, soil, and even water temperature and type, so growing gesneriad plants can be a challenge.

This large family contains members which are terrestrial or epiphytic, heat lovers or fine in temperate zones, blooming plants and foliage stunners. The group is so diverse that it is impossible to come up with one descriptive trait that would fit all the species.

The Gesneriaceae are widely distributed throughout the tropics of the world, with a number of species growing in temperate climates, especially at high altitudes in mountainous regions of Asia, Europe, and South America. There are Old World gerneriads and New World plants from South and Central America. Old World plants are from Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia.

The types of gesneriads are often classed by tribe, genera, and species but also by root. Rooting habits vary from fibrous to rooted, tuberous to rhizomous.

Growing Gesneriad Plants

Broad spectrum care information is the best that can be done for gesneriads due to their diversity of form and origin. It might help to know what the rooting system is for your plant to help determine its needs.

  • Fibrous rooted plants grow easily and rapidly and grow year-round.
  • Tuberous plants grow dormant if they are stressed or neglected.
  • Gesneriads that are rhizomous, will also go dormant but are extremely well adapted to the home interior.

Not all plants are as picky as the African violet, which can’t get water on its leaves, but most of them have some sort of peculiarity. You can check out the Gesneriad Society for more specific information on gesneriad culture.

Overall Gesneriads Care

Gesneriads should be grown in indirect but bright light. Some will prefer hanging baskets if they have long dangling limbs but others can just be grown in a pot.

Use rain or distilled water, not tap water, as plants are sensitive to the chemicals in treated water.

Use a balanced plant food in the growing season but suspend feeding in winter, as some plants go dormant. Keep the plant away from drafts and try to provide an average temperature of 60 to 80 degrees F. (15-26 C.).

These plants also seem to thrive in high humidity which can be hard to achieve in the home interior. Use a dish under the pot filled with pebbles and water to provide extra moisture in the air as it evaporates.

Gesneriads care will vary a bit by species. Pay attention to the root system and mimic the care you would give to other warm region plants with similar systems.

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Read more about General Flower Garden Care

Types of Hothouse Plants

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Hothouse plants bring to mind beautiful, exotic plants that need specialized conditions in greenhouses to grow well. The term implies the addition of heat to provide good growth, but there are choice plants that grow in tropical mountains that need cooler conditions to do well. Still others need either low or high humidity, or air circulation. Because hothouse plants are challenging to grow under ordinary room conditions, educate yourself about the plant's needs so it survives and hopefully flourishes outside of a hothouse. In U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 11, some hothouse plants can be grown outdoors.

Learn about gesneriads, relatives of African violets

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Cupid’s bower or Achimenes can be considered one of the African violet cousins.

Lipstick plant or Aeschynanthus

The African violet is the best-known member of the Gesneriaceae plant family, but not it is not the only one.

Meet some of the African violet’s cousins and other relatives Jan. 18 when African violet grower and gesneriad authority Aneita Richardson presents a program on gesneriads for the Town & Country African Violet Society.

The meeting begins at 11 a.m. at the Redlands Church of Christ Friendship Hall, 1000 Roosevelt Road, Redlands.

The program is free and open to the public.

Gesneriads have intrigued plant enthusiasts for centuries. They grow in a wide variety of plant sizes, shapes, flowers and colors. Gesneriads can range in size from smaller than a golf ball to shrubs and even trees taller than a single-story house.

Named for 16th-century Swiss naturalist Konrad von Gesner, the Gesneriaceae family consists of more than 2,500 species and more than 133 genera. In addition to the popular African violet or Saintpaulia, other well-known gesneriads are the cupid’s bower or Achimenes, the lipstick plant or Aeschynanthus, the flame violet or Episcia, the Cape primrose or Streptocarpus, the goldfish plant or Nematanthus and the florist gloxinia and other sinningias.

Gesneriads are not touchy, nor are they hard to grow. In fact, they may have few diseases and not be troubled by insects.

Specialized growing supplies and more will be available at the meeting.

For more than 50 years, Town & Country African Violet Society has been dedicated to furthering the interest in and care of African violets. Members come from not only Redlands but throughout the Inland Empire area including from San Bernardino, Riverside, Yucca Valley, Yucaipa and Oak Hills.

The society is affiliated with the African Violet Council of Southern California and the African Violet Society of America.

For information, call 909-794-6293 or 909-798-9384.

Source: Joyce Dean, a member of the Town & Country African Violet Society

Gesneriads Care: What Are Gesneriads And Commonly Grown Types Of Gesneriads - garden

[This is the text of a small pamphlet distributed by The Gesneriad Society. A pdf version of the pamphlet is available at the bottom of this page.

The first step in gesneriad culture is to provide bright but not scorching light. Inadequate light is the number one cause of poor bloom and slow growth.

As a general rule, keep plants as close as possible to an unshaded south (or east or west) window during winter. In summer, try a south window with light shade, or an unshaded east window. Rotate the plant regularly to promote even growth. Gesneriads can be grown outdoors in warm weather provide dappled light.

Symptoms of excessive light are sunburn, bleaching, leaves that bend down and hug the pot, and abnormally short stems.

Symptoms of inadequate light include poor growth and bloom, excessive stem elongation, and leaves that reach up towards the light.

Water regularly as long as the plant is actively growing. Most gesneriads do best if watered "evenly." This means that they should be watered fully (so that the soil is thoroughly wet and water runs out the bottom of the pot), and then not watered again until the soil begins to dry slightly (but is not yet desiccated and desert-like). Pour out any extra water in saucers leaving plants standing in water will keep the roots too wet. Don't use "softened" water it contains salt.

Let the plant tell you when to water check the soil. Plants need water more often in hot dry weather, and less often in cool damp weather. As a rule of thumb, if the plant is dried out and needs water more than twice a week, it needs a slightly larger pot if it is still wet after more than ten days without watering, it is probably over-potted.

Pots and Soil

Gesneriads do well in a light well-drained soil mix. If the mix feels coarse and "clumpy" when wet, it is probably OK. If it feels like mud, it is probably not OK. Most growers use a commercial peat-perlite-vermiculite mix.

Re-potting every year or two can be helpful. When you increase pot size, do it in the smallest possible step. Press down only gently on the soil when repotting excessive pressure compacts the soil.

Most gesneriads will do best with a rather small­-looking pot, well-draining mix, and regular watering. Trying to reduce watering frequency by using a large pot of soggy mix is a bad idea. It will result in root rot. More gesneriads have been killed by overpotting than by underpotting.

Gesneriads grown in home conditions generally do not need much fertilizer. As a rule of thumb, using any water-soluble fertilizer at about one-quarter (1/4) teaspoon per gallon is adequate. Fertilizing lightly with every watering is better than large doses sporadically applied. An occasional watering with plain water can help flush out accumulated salts.

Most gesneriads will do well at ordinary house temperatures between 50F and 80F. Achimenes, Episcea and Nautilocalyx should be kept at the warm end of this range. Streptocarpus do better if they are kept cool in summer.

Good air movement is very helpful. It can reduce problems with overheating, and can reduce mildew problems in cool damp weather.

Windowsill growing usually works well. So do “light gardens" many expert growers keep their plant collection under fluorescent lights in a cool basement.

The basic culture directions above are suitable for most of the commonly-grown gesneriads without a pronounced dormant season, including Alsobia, Aeschynanthus, Codonanthe, Columnea, Kohleria, and Nematanthus. Streptocarpus and Chirita can be grown similarly. (They grow slowly in winter but do not stop altogether. )

Plants that have pronounced dormant seasons require some extra instructions. These plants have underground food storage organs that enable them to survive a severe dry season in their native habitat. The advantage to the grower is that if you neglect watering for a long period, you get a second chance!

Achimenes, Eucodonia, Smithiantha, Gloxinia. and Kohleria grow from underground rhizomes that look rather like tiny pale pine cones. Plant the rhizomes an inch or so below the surface after they sprout in the spring. Begin watering gradually once the plants start actively growing they should not be allowed to dry out even briefly or they will go dormant again.

The plants can be put outside once the weather has warmed up. Achimenes dislike cold. They will bloom in mid to late summer. In the fall after they have finished blooming the leaves will begin to die. Reduce water and eventually stop entirely. The foliage will die, and the plants will form new rhizomes. The rhizomes can be harvested and stored in a cool, mostly dry (but not desiccated) storage location until spring.

Sinningia (including "Florist Gloxinia") grow from tubers at the base of the stem. Grow them in pots only slightly larger than the tuber, and provide very good light. The top of the tuber should be close to or just above the surface.

When the plant decides to prepare for the dry season, the foliage will begin to die back. At this point the grower must reduce watering drastically until new growth appears. If the grower fails to reduce water, the soil will become soggy when the plant is expecting dryness, the tuber will rot, and the plant will be lost.

While the plant is dormant, it can be stored in any cool dry location. Once growth resumes, increase watering and return the plant to a favorable lighting position.

The micro-miniature species S. pusilla, S. concinna, and S. sp. ' Rio das Pedras' do well in terrariums under fluorescent lights. They seldom go dormant for long, if at all.

You can cause plants to branch by removing the growing tip. This encourages lateral branching. Frequent pinching (every couple of leaf nodes) can result in a much bushier and more attractive plant. Shrubby or stalky plants are good candidates for this treatment.

Plants with long hanging stems should not be pinched except very near the base. The stems look more attractive if they hang as single long strands rather than splitting part way down.

Small delicate plants can be grown in terrariums. A terrarium can be a simple glass bowl with a cover, or as fancy as an expensive "doll house" of glass sheets, or as utilitarian as one of the omnipresent translucent plastic boxes. Use a very loose mix in a terrarium some people favor 50% perlite and 50% chopped long-fiber sphagnum. Avoid placing a terrarium in direct sun the temperature can rapidly get out of control. Add a small amount of water occasionally to make up for losses. Remember to use a weak fertilizer solution when adding water.

Popular Genera

This list briefly describes the culture of the most popular genera. There are exceptions don't be afraid to ask questions.

Achimenes are rhizomatous plants with large bright flowers. They are often grown as hanging basket plants outdoors in summer (keep them moist), and are dormant in winter.

Aeschynanthus are hanging or spreading plants with brilliant red or orange tubular flowers. They do well in hanging baskets in good light and are very tolerant of growing conditions.

Chirita look a little like thick-leaved African Violets with more tubular flowers. They tolerate low light and dry cool winters. Use a very small pot.

Columnea are hanging or spreading plants with brilliant red, yellow, or orange tubular or "hooded" flowers. They do well in hanging baskets most like warmth.

Episcea are noted for their wide variety of leaf patterns. They prefer very warm temperature, lower light, and good humidity.

Kohleria tend to be tall, but the flowers are bright and have interesting patterns.

Nematanthus ("Goldfish Plant") are bushy or spreading. Most have bright orange flowers with a "belly" hanging below a tube.

Sinningia are mounded or tall plants in a range of sizes from thimble-growers to three-foot specimens. The flowers are often red, white, or purple. They grow from tubers and have a dormant period.

Strcptocarpus are good bloomers with large purple, pink, or white flowers. Keep them cool in summer for best results.

We have probably all seen people rooting "African Violet" leaves in a glass of water. You can start most gesneriads from stem or leaf cuttings. Place the cutting in water or in a little slightly moist (not soggy) soil mix in a plastic bag. The cutting should root within a couple weeks it can then be taken out and potted in a small pot. Keep the newly-potted plant in a bag for a few days to allow the roots to develop further.

When removing any plant from a closed container for growing in the open, start by opening the container a tiny amount for the first few days gradually open a little more each day, so the plant gradually becomes accustomed to the lower outside humidity.

Members of The Gesneriad Society are your best source for information. You can find the society web pages at:

Another excellent resource is the book, How to know and grow gesneriads, from The Gesneriad Society. It is distributed free to new members.

Tips for Growing Columneas

Question: My Columnea are never as beautiful as yours. My conditions are good, but they always look weedy and don’t bloom very heavily. What am I doing differently?

Answer: Like violets and most other plants, Columnea nearly always bloom from the newest growth. This means that the more new, healthy growth there is, the more potential there is for blooming. Assuming that there is sufficient light and the culture is otherwise good, proper pruning is important in maximizing both foliage and blossom production. Treat columnea and other branching or vining gesneriads like Nematanthusand Aeschynanthus like you would a hedge. Why do you regularly trim a hedge? If you don’t, it just grows tall and spindly, and never has that dense, thick, lush look. Trimming it occasionally forces it to branch and produce new growth, filling in those empty spaces and giving it a full look.

Doing the same to your columnea has the same effect. Let each branch produce one or two new pairs of leaves, then cut the tips. This cut branch will then produce two (or more) branches which can, themselves, be cut when they’ve produced enough new growth. If done regularly, what began as relatively few cuttings in a pot can be made into a very full-looking plant with lots of new growth being produced. Once you achieve the “full” look that you desire, stop pruning and let the plant grow. Disciplining the plant’s growth early will reward you later.

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I recently expanded my collection from 2 varieties to 11, I think. I recently got 5 plants that look like only 4 different kinds by the leaves. I ordered some small plants on eBay too. I wanted to see how the gal ships them. They arrived beautifully.

Name: Lin Vosbury
Sebastian, Florida (Zone 10a)

I'm an old gal who still loves playing in the dirt!

Playing in the dirt is my therapy . and I'm in therapy a lot!

Name: Lin Vosbury
Sebastian, Florida (Zone 10a)

I'm an old gal who still loves playing in the dirt!

Playing in the dirt is my therapy . and I'm in therapy a lot!

I am an active Iris Forum gal, but they only bloom in June and are acquired in warm months only. Since I live in Maine, a Winter indoor plant is in order!

Outside, I have an Evergreen garden!

And I love Streps also but don't have any. Have not had them for over 30 years! (shame on me!!)

I can't figure out how to make a want or have for trade list. Any help? I don't know where to ask. Thanks!!

Love your Jet Trail! Very pretty!

I will try to make a list again. Again.

Sinningia 'Tomorrow'

Entry No. 164, Sinningia 'Tomorrow', exhibited by Peter Shalit.
Commentary by Kyoko Imai.

This is by far the entry I remember most:

It has a couple of traits I happen to like - a stocky habit and a visible tuber. An additional characteristics that make this plant stand out are the upward-facing flowers, which I think are just perfect for a plant that caters to humans - easy to see, easy to pollinate, and a nice profile:

The coloring of the flower and the markings inside are also distinctive:

After finding only limited information on the plant online (here and here), I asked Peter about the plant. It turns out we were very lucky to see this in bloom in Silver Spring, MD. As you can see below, it can have a long dormancy and has a determinate flowering habit. Also, it traveled a long way to that Convention - we can add to the human-friendly characteristics the ability to travel on its side for several hours at a time!

Here's a summary of Peter Shalit's commentary on this plant:

S. 'Bewitched' x (((S. cardinalis 'Skydiver' x S. bulbosa) x self) x S. conspicua)

I grew S. 'Tomorrow' for several years before naming it. After entering it in local shows several times I decided to release it. It is far from perfect but is pretty unique so I felt others might want to grow it.

Its positive features:

  • flowers are very peloric (stand straight up) and the limb is flared
  • very interesting and unique flower coloration: orange on the outside, purple on the inside
  • nice stiff stocky habit
  • makes a nice interesting tuber
  • very long-lived the plant at the 2009 Convention was at least 10 years old
But its negative features:
  • often a long dormancy period
  • not that floriferous
  • determinate each crown makes 8-10 flowers max and that's it
Neutral features:
  • it makes no pollen - i.e. is male-sterile (this can be an advantage when hybridizing)
Sinningia 'Tomorrow' is heterozygous for the yellow-flowered gene from the Sinningia conspicua. [What is the significance of this little sentence? Read on.]

About the yellow flower color: in my experience the yellow color of S. conspicua is a standard recessive gene. So: S. conspicua x 'Bewitched' = all offspring have orange flowers. The yellow gene is there but the effect is hidden by the dominant gene for orange flowers. Then if this is backcrossed to S. conspicua, 50% have yellow flowers. They all get one copy of the yellow gene from S. conspicua, but only half of them get the yellow gene from the other parent and to have yellow flowers, they need two copies of the yellow gene. Or if it were selfed, 25% would have yellow flowers.

With Sinningia 'Tomorrow', when crossed back to S. conspicua, half the progeny have yellow flowers. It is pollen-sterile so does not self, but is female-fertile. I have hybrids derived from it that have yellow peloric flowers and am working further with those for more colors, larger flowers, more flared limb, more floriferous, less dormancy, propagate by seed. The peloric gene is recessive which makes it a little harder.

I cannot thank Peter enough for the detailed responses to my questions, and for sharing some of the care and planning that goes into a hybridizing program.

A couple of further reading suggestions:

  • For more about Sinningia, I highly recommend the website "Sinningia and Friends."
  • For more about hybridizing gesneriads, check out the Gesneriad Hybridizers Association and its newsletter, Crosswords.

Watch the video: Christia Obcordata - How To Grow Successfully!


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