Beloved Begonias

July 27, 2016 morning garden 031
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Beloved Begonias,
Bejeweled, bold;
Bewildering in their variety,
Exotic,  erotic, esoteric, ephemeral
Exuberant-
Phenomenally fantastic;
Tropical travelers,
Insidiously intrepid.
Comforting companions,
Hairy, huge and hard to find;
Beautiful Begonias!
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Woodland Gnome 2016
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July 26, 2016 leaves 042

 

Begonias, Begonias

A cane Begonia.

An Angel Wing cane Begonia.

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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.

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The first bloom of the season on a tuberous Begonia. The catalog advertised this as a cascading variety, but the growth is vigorous and upright. When the branch gets too heavy with flowers, it breaks off.

The first bloom of the season on a tuberous Begonia. The catalog advertised this as a cascading variety, but the growth is vigorous and upright.

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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.

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June 23 2013 begonias and garden 005

Begonia bolivienses in partial sun.  When the soil is too wet the stems will rot off at soil level.  Weeks of rain will do that….

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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.

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Three different Begonia cultivars share this basket with a rabbits foot fern. The Begonia boliviensis usually dies back by late summer, but returns from its tuber the following spring. This baskets spends the winter months in our garage.

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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.

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Dragon's Blood Begonia is a tender perennial in Zone 7B

Dragon Wing Begonia is a tender perennial in Zone 7B

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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.

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Begonia boliviensis from a rooted cutting

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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.

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 A tiny wasp visits the flower of this Rex Begonia.

A tiny wasp visits the flower of this Rex Begonia.

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Garden centers are full of bedding Begonias, Begonia Semperflorens, and Dragon Wing Begonias in the spring.   Begonia Semperflorens, also known as Wax Begonias or Whiskey Begonias, are popular because these small, neat plants produce an abundance of small red, pink, or white flowers during the entire growing season.  They may have light or dark green leaves, variegated leaves or even dark purple leaves. Flowers may be single or double, but all are fairly small.

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New hybrids are available that maintain the flower form and leaf shape on much larger plants that may grow to 24″ in a single season.

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Gryphon Begonia

Begonia ‘Gryphon’, grown in a protected shady corner, began the season in a 4″pot, and and grew this large by September

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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.

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Begonia Semper growing with Plectranthus.

A rare, variegated Begonia Semperflorens  growing with Plectranthus.

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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.

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June 23 2012 dusk 010

Begonia “Gryphon” is new to the market. Widely available for only the past three years, it is grown for its huge foliage. My first Gryphon grew to 4 feet tall from a 4″ pot in a single season. Putting all of its energy into leaves, I’ve never seen it flower. This is from a cutting taken from my original plant.

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Angel Wing, or cane  Begonias, are a little harder to find.  Specialty and mail order nurseries are the most reliable sources.  These Begonias are grown more for their huge, bright leaves than for their flowers.

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June 23 2012 dusk 008

Cane type Begonias bloom generously throughout the season with many tiny flowers in each cluster.

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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.

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Rex Begonia

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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.

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Begonia Rex

Begonia Rex

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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.

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Tuberous Begonia

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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

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Tuberous Begonia foliage

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The tubers are started in shallow trays of soil, like Caladium tubers, and then repotted into baskets or pots once they sprout.  The concave side of the tuber should be up, and covered with a shallow layer of soil of not more than a half- inch.  Top with vermiculite or grit in a shallow layer to control mold.  Water in lightly, and place in a bright spot to watch for new stems to appear.

Upright or cascading, these hybrids are bred for outrageously beautiful flowers in every shade of red, pink, white, yellow, and orange, and their beautiful leaves.  Double, triple, picotee, and fringed, these flowers can mimic roses, water lilies, and anemones.  When kept watered and fed, they bloom for months.

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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.  Sometimes too many rainy days makes the stems begin to rot at the soil line, and they are very susceptible to mold and fungus.   I’ve killed more than my share of these beautiful plants, and am cautious in buying them.

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A dark leaved Tuberous Begonia shares a pot with Oxalis.

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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. Several new cultivars of hardy Begonias have come to market in recent years.

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Begonia grandis, perennial Begonias finally bloom by late summer.

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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.  Watch for the tiny red bulbils that form where leaf meets stem by late summer.  Each of these bulbils can grow into a new plant.

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Hardy Begonia grandis has naturalized in our garden. It spreads, but is never invasive.

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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.

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June 21 Lanai 007

Begonia Rex growing with a lady fern.

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Some specialty growers, like Logees Growers, offer specialized information about growing Begonias.  Although Begonias are in some ways a ‘cult’ plant like daffodils and Iris, there isn’t a great body of literature about them that is easily accessible.  The Queensland Begonia Society, in Queensland Australia, offers a very thorough resource for Begonia lovers.  They also share photos from their Begonia shows.  Please visit their site for excellent articles on Begonia care and propagation, and for their stunning photos of the Begonias in their care.

Networking is important for acquiring new plants and learning the fine points of growing Begonias.  I remain grateful to my Begonia loving friends for sharing cuttings and wanting to help over-winter these tender perennials.

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Dragonwing Begonias grow well in this shady spot at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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I commonly turn to several Begonia varieties for summer interest in pots I tend at the Williamsburg Botanical Gardens.  Rooted cuttings are easy to establish in mid-spring in shaded pots alongside ferns, Caladiums, and other shade-loving plants.  Friends often help out by adopting the plants in November before frost touches them.

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Begonia ‘Flamingo’

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Begonias remain some of the most beautiful, versatile and easy to grow plants for gardeners to use in pots, beds and borders.  New ones come to the market each year, ensuring that there are always new and interesting varieties available for those who like to try new plants.  With so many old favorites, the greatest challenge is to find space to grow them all.

Woodland Gnome

updated January 2021

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Begonia, “Sophie”

 

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