Gesneriads: A Great Family to Know and Grow! – Nancy A. Heber

How do you pronounce Gesneriad?  jez-NEER-ee-ad  OR  gez-NEER-ee-ad? Both ways are correct. The latter is preferred since this plant family was named after Konrad Gesner.

There are 125 genera, most found in the tropics.  Over 2000 species, but only about 300 are in cultivation.  There are two very popular Gesneriads: African violets (Saintpaulia), which has many cultivars and the florist gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa).

Other examples of Gesneriads are: Episcia, Chirita, Codonanthe, Columnea, Kohleria and Streptocarpus.  Can’t pronounce these strange names?  For specific information on how to grow and pronounce the names of these particular plants, look in Hortulana, the publication put out by Garden Club of Ohio (written by Nancy Heber).  To obtain a copy of Hortulana, check with your District Director or Nancy Heber.

What characteristics describe a member of the Gesneriad family? 1) The flowers have petals that are joined at the base that results in a tube. (a very short tube in the case of African violets) and a long tube as can be seen in a Streptocarpus.. The flower generally consists of two small lobes at the top; and three larger lobes at the bottom.  2) They have various root forms: fibrous, tuberous and scaly rhizomatous.  3) Some have hirsute (hairy) flowers, leaves and/or stems.

How can you grow Gesneriads successfully?

Light: East window in the summer; south window in winter. Best not to place them right on the windowsill – too hot or too cold!

Soil: Good drainage is extremely important. Purchase and use African violet potting soil mix.

Water: Most Gesneriads prefer to be kept evenly moist, but some like to dry out between waterings. ALWAYS use room temperature, aged water (let a gallon jug  of water sit for at least 24-48 hours to remove the chlorine).

Humidity:  This requirement is the hardest to provide in the normal house. For some plants only a terrarium environment meets the need.  Another method is to group plants together.  Plants may be set on a pebble tray, but do not let them stand in water.  Misting is a practice that that some follow, but I would strongly discourage it because the leaves may become spotted (even if  you use room temperature water). This method can also promote fungus growth on the leaves.

Temperature:  A wide range of temperatures are tolerated – 55 to 80 degrees. African violets prefer warmth; Streptocarpus like cooler temperatures.

Fertilizer: Regular, dilute feedings are more beneficial than a concentrated dose at long intervals of time. Use 15-30-15. Apply when soil is moist, not dry.

Propagation is varied: seed, rhizomes, tuberous offsets, pieces of leaf and stem root easily (as many of you have done to produce a new African violet) and stolons from Episcias.

Looking at the pictures accompanying this article will, hopefully, make you decide to add a member of the Gesneriad family to your plant collection.  You will be glad you did!

For more information, contact Nancy Heber, GCO Chairman, Indoor & Container Plants, at or (614) 451-8538.