Originally appeared in VioletsFun Photo Journal, issue no. 8.
Episcias are plants that we’ve “acquired” a taste for over time. They are beautiful and, when well-grown, they can be spectacular. They do have their eccentricities, though. It takes an understanding of these, which it took us a time to acquire, to grow them well and fully appreciate them. After an uncertain courtship, we’ve now come to understand them and to love them.
Episcias, like African violets, are a member of the gesneriad family. Common names sometimes given to them are “flame violets” or “peacock plants”. These names are descriptive of their very colorful, textured, leaves, the most beautiful of any gesneriad. Most bloom in shades of bright red to orange, though blooms in cream, pink, yellow and blue also exist. With a few exceptions, blooms are relatively small, but can be freely produced on a well-grown plant. The blooms can be beautiful, but one really grows episcias for their beautiful foliage.
Episcias are native to Central and South America, to Brazil, and to the West Indies. There are well over 30 species in this genus, but most of today’s hybrids are descended from three of them–E. cupreata, E. lilacina, and E. reptans. E. cupreata responsible for the most of these, particularly the more colorfully leaved varieties. The lilac or blue-flowered varieties are descended from E. lilacina. The blue-flowered varieties generally are less profuse bloomers, but we’ve been able to keep them in bloom much of the time by providing strong light, moist soil, and good humidity.
Episcias, like violets are generally shade lovers, meaning that they don’t normally tolerate prolonged exposure to direct sunlight, except under certain, narrow, conditions. The name, episcia, is derived from the Latin “espiskios”, meaning “shaded”. We grow ours under lights, with the violets, or against the back wall or in baskets in the north end of the glasshouse. Good light is important in bringing out the lovely colors of the leaves. If the light is too bright, however, leaf color might be less intense.
The two most important things to remember when growing episcias is warmth and humidity. Episcias are tropical plants that require warmth, and prefer humidity, to grow well. A minimum temperature for them is 65f degrees, below which leaf edges may turn brown or leaves may be lost. Below 50f degrees, most will quickly die. We find that ours suffer when grown too close to the cold panes of the glasshouse in winter. They will tolerate temperatures as high as 80f degrees with moderate (40-50%) humidity, and much higher temperatures with high (70% or more) humidity and moist soil.
Though very high humidity isn’t critical, it is beneficial, and at least moderate humidity is essential in growing nice specimens. At minimum, 30% humidity is recommended. Higher humidity becomes even more important the higher the temperature. If one wants a profusely blooming plant, with large flowers, moderate to high humidity can be very helpful. Some of the best specimens seen at shows are often grown enclosed in clear containers, in terrarium-like conditions. For some varieties, like the white and pink-leaved E. ‘Cleopatra’ (and other variegated hybrids), and the yellow-flowered E. ‘Tropical Topaz’, this is the only way to provide them with the humidity levels they need to look their best.
As for soil, water, and feeding, we give episcias pretty much the same care as we do our African violets. A light, soilless mix is best, and it is best to keep it as close to evenly moist as possible. If kept too dry, leaf edges may become brown or curled. We’ve had this happen to older, larger, plants that consume more water, especially in higher temperatures. If kept too wet, roots can rot–which is more likely in moderate to cool temperatures when the plant is growing more slowly. Be sure that the root system is developed before giving the plant lots of extra water. Basically, use the same rule as used for violets–water when “dry to the touch”. Episcias and violets like the same conditions, the difference being that episicias have a narrower ideal range than do violets–avoid going to extremes, letting plants go very dry and then watering them heavily. Too much of this and the plants will show signs of stress.
Because episcias freely produce stolons, which bear small plantlets at their tips, propagation is extremely easly. Keep the center four leaves of these plantlets, and keep no more than 1/2″ of the stolon. Also remove any small buds or smaller plantlets from the one being rooted. If the plantlet’s leaves are too large, the ends of these can be removed. Press the stolon and its base into moistened soil (firmly) and place in a closed, transparent, container. Rooted plants can be removed from the container in three weeks–or you can continue to grow them there if you need the extra humidity.
Once they begin to grow, it’s best to remove the small, developing stolons, to allow the plant to more quickly, and fully, develop. After the main stem gets thicker and stronger, and the plant matures, it will bloom. At this point, we pot it into a larger pot, or basket, and allow the stolons to grow. These, too, will eventually produce blooms and stolons. Episcias grow very quickly, and can look “weedy” if unattended, so don’t be afraid to remove excess stolons. When well grown, they can be some of the most colorful and rewarding plants in your collection.