Eye Catching Episcias: The African Violet’s Tropical Relative

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Episcia plants in pots surrounding a garden ornament in a tropical garden.
Episcias can be grown in pots, hanging baskets or as a groundcover in the tropics. Image: © Nitiphonphat

The Episcia is a popular tropical pot plant, but some gardeners are not aware how versatile this plant really is. Often, they are just grown in a backyard shadehouse or on a balcony in the same pot in which they were bought from the nursery, but they also make magnificent hanging baskets and ground covers for semi-shaded positions in the garden.

Episcias thrive in the tropics as they love both heat and humidity. Episcias can be as attractive as their close relative, the African Violets, but they are a lot less temperamental and easier to grow. In some countries they are known by the common name ‘Flame Violets’.

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There are dozens of different varieties of Episcia available. There are 10 species of Episcia but most of the ones grown in the home garden are varieties or hybrids of E. reptans or E. cupreata. The most common ones have red or yellow flowers with attractive patterned leaves.

There are also cultivars available with pink or orange flowers, and a much sought-after variety with blue flowers. Different varieties have varying leaf colours and textures. There is one very attractive variety with a hairy leaf, coppery green on top and purple underneath.

Closeup of a rare variety of episcia with purple flowers and black and green leaves.
This is a striking variety with serrated purple flowers and black and green coloured leaves. Image: © Zulashai

They can be easily transplanted into a hanging basket. In a basket, they like a rich, well-drained potting mix with plenty of organic matter like peat moss or coconut peat. Some varieties grow well in an orchid mix to which some sphagnum moss has been added.

Use a small basket when starting out with young plants, as they grown best when the spread of their root system is somewhat restricted. This forces them to send out runners over the side of the basket on which rosettes of new leaves will form.

A mature plant will produce quite dense foliage and flowers that will cascade down around the basket for two or three feet. When watering Episcias in baskets, let the potting mix dry out a little between waterings to ensure they won’t suffer any root rot – especially during the cooler nights of the dry season.

The one thing that Episcias don’t like is strong winds. So try to position your hanging baskets in places where they have some protection from the wind and are not subject to constant draughts. The same goes for those that you continue to grow in pots.

Red flowering episcia hanging down from a pot on a shelf.
Episcias can grow down up to a metre from pots on a shelf or in hanging baskets. Image: © Elena Loginova

For transplanting into the garden as a groundcover, it’s best to use the more common red-flowered variety as that is the most hardy in the ground. Unless you already have very fertile soil, you’ll need to add an organic soil improver first like peat moss or well-rotted animal manure. Adding gypsum or coarse river sand as well will help to improve drainage.

Episcias need a bright but semi-shaded spot in the garden, meaning they shouldn’t get too much sun (especially afternoon sun) but not too heavy shade. Whilst they will grow fine in heavy shade, the plants will become lanky and won’t produce as many flowers. As a ground cover, you want the plant to stay compact so that weeds don’t overtake it.

In the ground, Episcias need more water than when being grown as pot plants or hanging baskets, but they won’t tolerate being waterlogged. When watering them in the dry season, let the ground dry out slightly between waterings. As with most groundcovers, morning watering is better than evening watering.

As groundcovers they will be quick to establish themselves. Young Episcias, planted in a 12-inch square grid pattern, will provide a complete cover in a matter of months. With their brilliantly coloured flowers, they are one of the most attractive groundcovers that can be grown in the tropics.

Common red-flowered episcia plant being grown as a ground cover.
This common variety with red flowers and silver and green leaves grows easily as a groundcover. Image: © 24Novembers

Fertilise Episcias at least once a month with liquid or soluble fertilisers. Avoid granular fertilisers as they tend to burn the tender leaves. But slow-release fertilisers like Osmocote are fine.

Pests rarely trouble Episcias but an eye should be kept out for caterpillars. Picking them off by hand is the best way to control them, but if there are too many to remove by hand, a light application of Carbaryl dust should fix the problem.

To propagate Episcias, simply place pots of growing media around a mature plant in a pot, and let the runners grow over the side of the pots until the runners are rooted into the new pots. Once they are rooted and the new plants are producing new leaves, then the runners between the original pot and the new pots can be cut.

Don’t be embarrassed about asking for Episcias at your local nursery because you are not sure how to pronounce their name. Nearly every nurseryman calls it something different. I pronounce it with the accent on the second syllable, but you can call it Ee-pis-kia, Ee-pees-shea, or Ee-pis-ia. They will know what you are looking for.

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