Not Your Grandmother’s Begonias -Spring 2009

by: Hilary Newell

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

I’ve heard plenty of folks say “I hate begonias,” many with an especially vehement “hate.” I said it years ago, and feel that I was justified then, but I have radically modified my views toward this group of remarkable plants. As a youngster, the only begonias I came in contact with were red wax begonias. These were quite literally “My Grandmother’s Begonias.” And they were boring.

Begonias are native to South America and were named for Michel Begon, a French naturalist and former governor of the colony of Haiti. They were very popular in Victorian times, but not in the wide variety that is available today.

Now you can get rex begonias, cane begonias, shrub-type begonias, rhizomatous, tuberous or trailing begonias. Each type has its unique characteristics, and as they have become more available, they have become more popular. There are begonia festivals all over the world, in warm climates like Moorabbin, Australia and Capitola, California. In Capitola they celebrate the begonia like we celebrate the daffodil, with parades and competitions, but on a much grander scale. The guide for building floats is 10 pages long and they suggest that it will take hundreds of cardboard beer boxes, 12 motivated adult begonia-pickers and three to four hours of picking time to gather enough begonias to cover the floats.

I’ve seen some pretty fancy daffodil-decorated cars in our own daffodil parade, but never anything quite that involved.

It must be quite a sight to observe the crowds picking some of the 3 million blooms in the begonia fields provided (at no charge) by the Golden State Bulb Growers. It just can’t be compared to taking a drive out picturesque Milestone Road. Yes, begonias are a big deal.

In Palm Beach, Florida, the begonia is a big deal, too. The American Begonia Society’s National Convention called Bewitched, Bothered and Begonia’d takes place at the end of April with no less than 330 classes of begonia entries. Similar to our daffodil show, there are several categories one can enter, including photography, which is not graded horticulturally, but is taken very seriously just the same.

The Begonian is a bi-monthly journal published for the members of the American Begonia Society. It is written for all levels of enthusiasts, and contains articles teaching beginning growing techniques, to specific information about newly-discovered species and new hybrids. This society has branches throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada, and there’s plenty of information online if one was interested.

While the flowers are an integral part of the festivals and shows, many begonias are grown and judged just for their unusual foliage. Rex begonia leaves can be spectacular, showing unusual colors like burnt orange, red, green, purple and silver, and in any combination. The leaves are patterned, and can be as small as one inch or as large as 12 inches. The species, Begonia rex, is crossed with other types of rhizomatous begonias to get the rex hybrids, which do bloom, but with indistinctive, small flowers that are outperformed by their outstanding foliage. Often used as house plants, these favorites have found their way into gardens, too. Shady, moist areas are ideal. Varieties like Benitochiba, Fireflush, Raspberry Swirl and Hurricane offer unique foliage and interesting colors as houseplants here in the north. I have one in the house called Cathedral Window and it lives up to its name when it sits in full sun. The rays shine through, drawing colorful images on the walls.

Rhizomatous begonias can be grown for their interesting leaves but they have the added bonus of a massive display of flowers. These are used as bedding plants in warmer climates as they spread across the surface of the ground by rhizomes (think iris, or ginger). While all begonias are tender annuals in our climate, they can live outside year-round in zone 10.

Botanic gardens in the South have some nice specimens of large rhizomatous begonias like Black Velvet, which has black foliage, and Beatrice Haddrell, a hybrid with star-shaped leaves and masses of pink flowers. Escargot has a leaf that swirls up on itself so that it looks like a snail’s shell.

Wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens) have been the standard garden-center offering for years, from the 1950s right through the present. With a waxy look (hence the common name) to their green or bronze leaves, they are probably the most widely-grown begonia, at least in the United States.

While they do have their place, they are old-fashioned and not uniquely interesting as specimens. They are less expensive to produce, as they can be grown from seed, and that makes them ideal for mass plantings. I can imagine plant breeders coming up with their names: whisky, gin and vodka. Sounds like a party! If there’s a big area to fill and you want a relatively static display of flowers that bloom all summer, this begonia is for that spot. There’s not much color choice though, as they’re only available in red, pink or white.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a splashy, sophisticated appearance, tuberous begonias make a stunning show. Shade gardens come alive with tuberous begonias like the Non-Stop varieties. Paired with other shade-loving plants, like spider plants, ferns or lobelia, Non-Stops really live up to their name. Brightly colored and large-flowered, these massive blooms go all summer, right up until a hard frost.

All begonias are monoecious, having both the male and female flowers on the same stem, and no other begonia is a better example than the Non-Stop. The female is fully double, and three times the size of the single male flower. Whether the palette is pastel or bold, these begonias will work in any shady garden.

One of the newer varieties that is simply stunning to look at – and my favorite – is Illumination. Their pendulous habit makes them ideal for window boxes, hanging baskets or tall containers. Their narrow, pointed leaves trail down and have flowers at every node. They are a staple on my front porch, which is so shady that they only get sunshine from about 7-9 a.m. in the summer, though they can take more sun than they get there. They come in several colors, and they are so bold they brighten up the shady area. I also love the fact that they bloom heavily right up until frost. I have photos of Halloween pumpkins with nice healthy, blooming Illuminations in the background.

Cane begonias were also grown by our grandmothers, and shared by “slips” given to friends and neighbors. Because they have hairy stems and leaves, this type of propagation works very well. A little cutting including a growing tip stuck in some soil will root easily. My mother’s kitchen had a curlicue, wrought-iron plant holder with cuttings sitting in water. The roots became a hairy-looking jumble before the plant got stuck in a pot. These begonias are often known as Angel Wings. Their stems have a bamboo-like appearance and can reach 14 feet in southern climes.

They can be kept smaller and more compact by trimming and limiting the size of the pot. Some cane begonias are scented, but most begonias lack that particular attribute. Another trait of cane types is silver spots or splashes on the foliage. They grow well indoors or in greenhouses here in the North, but they’re grown outdoors in the South. Like most begonias, they have pointed leaves, and their flowers grow in clusters. Many are ever-bloomers, and bloom heavily from time to time, in nearly every color except shades of blue.

The Mandalay begonias are new introductions this year. They are fibrous types that are touted as having a longer bloom time than the tuberous begonias they resemble, and are supposed to be an exceptional container plant. These prefer full sun and can tolerate temperatures into the 90s. As with all new varieties being presented to greenhouse growers, I will take a wait-and-see attitude and watch their performance this year before making my final judgment.

In general, most begonias prefer a soil composed of peat moss and sand, but they are tolerant of any well-drained mix. The type of mix you use for potting will dictate how often you will need to water and feed your plants. They also prefer shade, but in the home in winter, they need a fair amount of sun and are quite tolerant of drying out. Begonias need to be fed once a month in the winter time, and more frequently when they are in active growth in spring and summer. The best way to kill a begonia is with too much water.

If you have a begonia that you would like to propagate, there are a few methods to choose from. Some begonias set seed, and if the plant is not a hybrid, those seeds will grow into the same variety. Be warned, though. Begonia seeds are smaller than a deer-tick’s eye. They are very difficult to handle and if you are successful at getting the seed onto some sort of soil media, they take weeks to germinate and weeks to grow to a size where they can be transplanted. In the growing industry, begonia seeds are individually pelletized, or covered with a clay polymer that dissolves in water. This makes them easier to see and handle.

Another, simpler and more satisfying method is tip-cutting. With a sharp knife, cut the stem of your begonia diagonally about two inches below the newest leaves, and put the cutting in a small container of water. The stems give off a rooting hormone as they sit in the water, so the smaller the container, the more concentrated its rooting power will be. A small baby-food jar is just about the right size, and you can put several cuttings in the same container. When the roots have reached a half-inch they can be planted right into your potting mix. You can grow as many as you want and pass them around to your friends.

Share the begonia love and try to convince those begonia naysayers that they’re not giving them the chance they deserve. I suggest that a trip to Capitola, California over Labor Day might just cure anyone who still says “humbug” when someone mentions a begonia.

Hilary Newell is the greenhouse production manager at Bartlett’s Farm and compiles “The Farm Dirt” each week.






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