Fans of African violets, gloxinias, and other indoor gesneriads now have another reason to rejoice--chiritas. Like their more familiar cousins, these delicate exotics, most of which are tender perennials, make good houseplants. Until recently, few of the more than 150 species of Chirita, which is both the genus name and the common name, were in commercial cultivation. According to Jeanne Katzenstein, editor of The Gloxinian, the cause for the recent flurry of interest is the Smithsonian Institution's introduction of some lovely species from China. These newer chiritas are finding their way into nurseries, and their introduction has renewed interest in more readily available ones.
The genus offers enormous variety, but many of the common chiritas share certain features such as delicate blue-lavender or pale yellow trumpet-shaped blooms held high above the hairy leaves and stalks. Some varieties have spotted or variegated foliage. The plants normally bloom in the spring and, depending on the variety, may bloom again in summer. For her customers, Marcia Belisle, veteran chirita grower and owner of Belisle's Violet House in Wisconsin, recommends not only the easy-to-grow Diane Marie and New York, but also some of the recent arrivals from China, such as C. flavimaculata, a large plant that can reach 2 feet in diameter and has pale purple flowers.
For best flowering, give the plants daytime temperatures from 65° to 75° F, with a 10° F drop at night and protection from strong direct sunlight. During winter, grow the plants under fluorescent lights. Chiritas like well-drained soil, kept on the dry side, with extra lime; for good bloom, they should be kept potbound. They also grow best in high (50 percent) humidity, so in winter place plants on a pebble tray filled with water. Avoid getting water on the leaves. Fertilize mature plants with a liquid African violet fertilizer once or twice per week. Besides offering attractive foliage and flowers, easy-care chiritas have an additional benefit: they're easy to propagate from leaf cuttings and seeds.
To learn more about chiritas and other gesneriads, write to The American Gloxinia and Gesneriad Society, Box 1598, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or visit its Web site at www.aggs.org.