It may sound like a throat infection but Streptocarpus is my all-time favourite houseplant. I know some people don’t care for their fleshy, knubbly leaves but I can forgive streps pretty much everything when they come into flower – and, given the right conditions, once they’re in flower they keep on giving for months on end.
The other thing I love about them is you only ever have to buy (or, cough, acquire…) one example of any variety as they’re so easy to propagate.
The secret to keeping streps is knowing how they live in the wild. They may look like our native primrose (and I lost my very first strep because I assumed it was in the same family and left it outside in the winter) but they’re actually from the Gesneriad family, inhabiting the valleys of the Drakensburg Mountains in Southern Africa. Their closest cousins are African violets.
At home in their ravines, streps hide in light woodland, so they like bright, indirect light. Frankly I keep several of mine in quite dark conditions. Expose them to direct sushine and the leaves get sickly and yellow or develop brown burn marks.
Some people get quite obsessive about streps and it’s easy to see why. The sheer variety of colour is staggering and new varieties are being constantly developed. I adore the very few yellow varieties – Alyssa is probably my all time favourite:
They don’t seem to be very strong, alas. I’m still trying to persuade Strep. Nadine to grow more than two leaves, let alone flower. Much tougher are the Harlequin series, which bulk up quickly and have very jazzy, two-tone flowers. Shocking pink and custard yellow Harlequin Dawn is the flashiest but Harlequin Damsel (white and purple) is just coming into flower – I may have to report back.
The only thing about them is that if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care for big fleshy leaves, the Harlequins are the worst offenders. Me? I love ’em.
Less flashy, more elegant are varieties such as Cappuccino:
and Targa, which flowers and flowers and flowers and flowers:
So far I’ve been a bit underwhelmed with the ‘all-year-flowering’ Crystal range. I got a few stems of Crystal Ice – not an absolutely dazzling variety – then the whole thing went to sleep.
I have no idea what the name is of my first-ever strep, but it’s tough as old boots and although I lost the very first one in the snow (I know, I know…) I’ve given away countless of its babies and still have several myself. It’s also the easiest to propagate.
Leaf cuttings are easy. You’ll need a little pot (or tray) of gritty compost, a knife and some kind of clear cover – a plastic bag will do.
Take a single leaf and cut it into horizontal strips. Making sure you’ve got each segment the right way up (with the end that would have been closest to the stem on the bottom) just pop each segment into the soil.
Cover it up with clear plastic. In a couple of months tiny leaflets will begin to appear. When they’re large enough, they can be potted up. No need to remove the original leaf-part, it quietly disposes of itself.
Of course the easiest way to buy streps is from a specialist. Dibley’s is by far the best of the British suppliers and have won countless medals at Chelsea. Their catalogue is the closest thing I get to porn – I salivate over every new edition and have been known to salivate over the website with my sister on the phone. Plugs are the best and cheapest way to buy them – they always arrive very healthy; ready to be popped into a pot.
Dibleys also sell streptocarpus food tablets – one a month, after you’ve deemed the nutrition in the soil to have been exhausted, does nicely.
Probably the most difficult thing about keeping streps is watering. Frustratingly the symptoms of over-watering are exactly the same as those of under-watering – the leaves droop in an alarming fashion. I generally test the soil with my finger and make a judgement. Too wet is worse than too dry as you can always add water. You’ll know if you’ve got it right as within a few hours the leaves will have perked up and everything’s alright again.
There’s recently been an unpleasant infestation of mealy bug in my house. I’ve done my best and binned infected plants, but there really isn’t much that can be done and I don’t think I’m out of the mealy woods yet. I’m resisting getting rid of all my houseplants, though it may come to that. They attack streps right at the base, under the leaves, so keep an eye out. Generally, though, they’re pretty trouble-free. Enjoy.