I love begonias. That may sound like a strange obsession for a “forest gardener”, but it is my strange obsession.
I remember buying a hanging basket of blooming angel wing Begonias with tiny dark burgundy and green leaves at the farmer’s market when I was living in a third floor walk up. It made my small screened in porch more beautiful, and made me happy. Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for adding beautiful begonia plants to my collection.
There are thousands of cultivars in the genus Begonia. Whether grown for their outrageous leaves or their abundant bright flowers, Begonias can be found from tiny to tremendous.
Begonias work in a forest garden because they appreciate shade. Although some, like the new Dragon Wing cultivars and Begonia “Bolivienses” can take hours of sun each day, most are quite happy growing in permanent shade. They also require very little care. Most like to dry out a little between waterings. They stand up to the heat and humidity of my Virginia forest garden partly because they originate in the mountainous tropical forests of Central and South America and Southern Asia.
Although some cultivars of hardy Begonia are available, which survive the winter here in zone 7B and return each spring; most Begonias are tender perennials and must spend the winter inside where the temperatures don’t drop below the mid 40s. They are happy growing in the house, where they get some daylight from windows, and bloom happily throughout the winter. Many of my Begonias overwinter in a sunny garage. They may lose a few leaves when moved out into the garden in the spring, but bounce back quickly with new leaves once they adjust to the brighter light.
Garden centers are full of bedding Begonias (Begonia Semperflorens) and Dragon Wing Begonias in the spring. Begonia Semperflorens, also known as wax Begonias, or popular because these small, neat plants produce an abundance of small red, pink, or white flowers during the entire growing season. Many commercial landscapers fill huge beds with these plants, but often plant them in too much sun. When they get too much sun and dry out the foliage browns and looks ratty. Growth is stunted, and the plants lose their beauty. These plants are easy to start from stem cuttings. There are some varieties with variegated foliage which trail more than they grow upright. I love these in hanging baskets growing in partial sun.
Dragon Wing Begonias have also become common spring plants in big box stores and are easy to grow. They can take sun or shade and are covered in red or pink flowers all season. They also root easily from a stem cutting in moist soil or in water. This means you can break off a stem, push it into moist potting soil, keep it shaded and moist for several weeks, and expect it to grow into a new plant. Dipping the stem cutting in powdered rooting hormone before planting speeds the process.
Angel wing, or cane Begonias are a little harder to find. Specialty and mail order nurseries are the most reliable sources. MacDonald’s Garden Center stocks a nice variety in spring and early summer, but their satellite stores don’t stock them. These Begonias are grown more for their huge, bright leaves than for their flowers. Marked with silver, burgundy, and various greens, these wing shaped leaves often grow on red stems and have dark red undersides. Angel wing Begonias produce clusters of flowers in white, pink, red, or orange. Sometimes there are 50 or more tiny flowers in a single cluster. Angel wing cane Begonias can grow into small shrubs and can top out over 6’ tall after several years of growth.
Rex Begonias are also grown for their leaves, but stay much smaller than cane Begonias. Many of the leaves are textured, intricately marked with color, and some even grow into spirals with a snail shell appearance. Rex Begonias flower, but are insignificant on most cultivars. Tiny Rex Begonia plants can often be found in the houseplant section of big box hardware stores. Sold in 2.5”- 6” pots, often with just a few leaves, these tiny starts will grow into impressive plants indoors or out. Pot them up so the soil will drain, feed them, give them bright but filtered light, and they take off and become beautiful plants.
Tuberous, or double, Begonias are grown for their large, bright flowers. These are extremely popular in Europe. Tubers are offered through catalogs all winter and show up in big box stores in late winter alongside other summer bulbs and tubers. By early May the plants begin to appear, blooming, in better garden centers. The Homestead Garden Center in James City Co. always offers a beautiful assortment of Dragon Wing and Tuberous begonias at very affordable prices. http://www.homesteadgardencenter.com
The tubers are started in shallow trays of soil, like caladium tubers, and then repotted into baskets or pots once they sprout. Upright or cascading, these hybrids are bred for outrageously beautiful flowers in every shade of red, pink, white, yellow, and orange. Double, triple, picotee, and fringed, these flowers can mimic roses, water lilies, and anemones. When kept watered and fed, they bloom for months. Sadly, this is the hardest begonia for me to grow, because they absolutely must have the proper moisture. If they get too dry, they droop. Too wet, they rot. I’ve killed more than my share of these beautiful plants, and am cautious in buying them.
Hardy Begonias are beautiful in a shady border. These are technically “tuberous” Begonias, as they have an enlarged area at the bottom of each stem underground which survives the winter, but these plants are very easy to grow. These make their re-appearance each year in the late spring and can grow to 18”-24” by late summer. They bloom, like an Angel wing Begonia, with clusters of white or pink flowers and increase each year. Interestingly, they self sow and new plants often crop up in other parts of the garden. These are beautiful grown in beds with fern and Hosta and are a good plant to grow on top of spring bulbs.
Begonias grow quickly and make beautiful displays either alone, or in potted arrangements with other shade loving plants. Although heavily hybridized over the last century, most cultivars retain the tough constitution of the forest plants originally collected from the mountains of South America and Asia by determined collectors who loved Begonias enough to search them out in the wild and bring them home to Europe and North America.
Here some sources for ordering Begonia plants:
Garden Harvest Supply is an excellent company I frequently use as a source for plants I can’t buy locally, or to buy plants earlier in the season than local nurseries carry them. They have excellent plants and give excellent service:
I enjoy the Taylor’s Greenhouse site, but so far haven’t placed an order. They have a much wider selection of otherwise hard to find Begonias. Their page also has further links of interest to anyone interested in Begonias:
And finally, I’ve just learned about the Queensland Begonia Society, in Queensland Australia. Please visit their site for excellent articles on Begonia care and propagation, and for their stunning photos of the Begonias in their care.