A begonia is a begonia is a begonia . . . don't be so sure

THE REAL DIRT

January 25, 1992|By Mike Klingaman

I've never been a big fan of begonias. They don't smell. The shiny leaves look artificial, as if they've been sprayed with floor wax. And the blossoms I've seen come in only three colors: red, white and pink.

To me, begonias are boring. But what do I know? I buy my bedding plants at K mart.

Now I find that begonias come in all colors, shapes and sizes. There are tiny begonias that fit in your palm, with flowers the size of a fingernail. There are giant begonias that grow 8 feet tall, with leaves stretching 4 feet across.

There are begonias with purple leaves, hairy leaves and leathery leaves. There are begonias whose leaves can be brewed to make tea. There are even some fragrant begonias with lightly scented blossoms.

Obviously, discount stores have done begonias an injustice. And so have I.

How many different begonias are there? More than 1,000 species, 10,000 hybrids and 40,000 cultivars, according to the American Begonia Society. And those numbers keep going up.

New species are being located all the time in their native tropics, says Wanda Macnair, 60, a begonia enthusiast from Cambridge, Mass. In fact, there is currently a backlog of more than 200 newly discovered begonias awaiting nomenclature.

However, the plants are threatened. American Begonia Society officials are rushing to stay one step ahead of the chain saws in South America, where some of the plants grow to 15 feet.

"We're fighting the cutting of the rain forests," says Ms. Macnair. "So many begonia varieties are disappearing before they are even found."

There are trailing begonias, succulent begonias and climbing begonias that will creep up the side of a house like morning glory vines in warmer climates.

"There's a begonia with leaves so tiny they look like blades of grass," says Ms. Macnair. "There's another shrub-like begonia, with compound leaves, which looks almost like marijuana."

Nonetheless, she says, most Americans remain wedded to the generic, store-bought wax begonia.

"We show all these unusual begonias at flower shows, but if they don't see those wax ones, some people are unhappy," says Ms. Macnair. "I guess that's all they know."

The rarer begonias appeal to Barbara Nunes, whose collection of 100 plants includes a hardy 2-foot begonia from China that produces huge pink blossoms each summer at her home in Springfield, Va. Indoors, several dainty pink and white varieties bloom profusely in special terrariums. One of Ms. Nunes' favorite begonias produces flower spikes that extend 1 foot above the plant itself. When open, the blossoms resemble a cloud.

Many indoor begonias make few demands, she says, provided they are potted in rich, fluffy soil, given proper light (12 hours a day) and watered sparingly in early morning.

Ms. Nunes propagates many of the plants herself.

"Begonias are so easy to grow," she says. "There's nothing more exciting than taking a leaf from one plant, sticking it in some vermiculite and watching a whole new plant start. It's a miracle."

Nor are begonias terribly difficult to hybridize at home, says John Ingles, spokesman for the 1,500-member American Begonia Society. All you do is rub the male and female flowers together, save the resulting seed and plant it.

"One of our members in upstate Wisconsin designed a new hybrid right in her own kitchen," says Mr. Ingles.

New members receive a handbook on begonia culture, a package of free seeds and a subscription to The Begonian, a bimonthly, 60-page color magazine. Dues are $15 a year. For more information write The American Begonia Society, 157 Monument Road, Rio Dell, Calif. 95562.

Beginning next weekend, Feb. 2, Mike Klingaman's gardening column "The Real Dirt" will appear each Sunday in The Sun Magazine.

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