Beautiful, bountiful begonias

Plant: There are thousands of different kinds of begonias, and some are sure to please, either as houseplants or as annual bedding plants.

In The Garden

January 20, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

When I was in college, my mother, who spent the better part of 20 years trying to turn me into a gardener, gave me a potted shoot from her beefsteak begonia (Begonia 'Erythrophylla'). It was a smart move. The plant was not only seductively gorgeous -- with pink fairy-bell flowers and dark green lilypad leaves whose undersides were the color of raw meat (hence the beefsteak name) -- but it was also almost maintenance-free. For two decades, I hauled it around, shoved it into east-facing windows, repotted it when I felt inspired, neglected it when I was overwhelmed, and appreciated it inordinately. It would be alive today had it not been zapped by an unexpected frost at the end of its annual summer vacation outdoors a few years ago.

Generally, begonias are tropical. Although Begonia evansiana, found in Japan, China and Malaysia, is classified as hardy in our area, even this strain doesn't like prolonged hard freezes. But while begonias are not perennials here, they make super houseplants and annual bedding plants. One reason is their dramatic foliage.

"Begonias have the most diversity of texture in leaf structure and color of almost any plant," says Byron Martin, third-generation owner of Logee's Greenhouses in Danielson, Conn.

And there is a big choice of begonia varieties. Named for Michel Begon (1638-1710), a botany enthusiast and one-time governor of French Canada, the Begoniaceae family is huge.

"There are several classes and several thousand in each class," says Skip Antonelli, partner in Antonelli Bros. Begonia Gardens in California, which specializes in tuberous begonias. "There are several hundred cane cultivars alone."

Begonias are divided into seven main types: rhizomatous, cane-like, shrub-like, semperflorens, tuberous, rex and trailing-scandent.

Rhizomatous (like my old reliable beefsteak) are usually easy-care with interesting leaves year-round and February flower clusters that grow in sprays above the foliage. Cane-like begonias grow tall, bamboo-style stems and large, airy flower clusters. Shrub-like begonias tend to grow upright on branching stems. Semperflorens, aka wax begonias, are the smaller, multi- flowered types often sold as annual bedding plants.

Tuberous begonias, which some consider the most persnickety, also boast the lushest flowers. Rex have wonderfully colorful leaves.

Trailing-scandent begonias grow like vines.

A begonia by any other name

Few begonias are scented, though at least one is known for its taste.

B. deliciosa, discovered in Borneo in 1881 by Jean Linden, is a rhizomatous type grown for its culinary value in Asia. The light-pink flowers, framed by dark leaves dotted with silver, taste (I've read) both sweet and tart, though its demanding nature makes it a collector's specimen here in Maryland.

Tuberous begonias, unlike most other types, which are prized for foliage, are all about bloom. Large and full, like something off an organdy prom dress, tuberous begonias add eye-popping color to the border. But since they are long-season plants that are very cold-sensitive, producing long-lasting blooms outside takes preliminary work inside.

"Start them indoors in mid-

March so they are a fairly good size by mid-May, when you can put them out," says Antonelli. "They'll bloom in July. Otherwise, if you plant them outside in May, they won't bloom until mid-September, when it's almost time to go back in again."

Transplant the potted tubers into the ground in May, sink the pot into the bed or leave them potted above ground. Whichever way you choose, they must be brought inside before the first freeze and stored in a cool dry place (a cellar works well). Unlike other begonias, which look good year-round, the tuberous varieties need a dormant period.

"You can prolong their bloom by artificial lights," says Antonelli, "but they need a rest."

Cane-like begonias include the angel wings, whose amazing leaves -- dappled, splotched, serrated, etched, painted and more -- are the main attraction inside.

"A lot of those canes are real stingy with flowers," notes Anto-nelli, "though the newer ones bloom readily. 'Jumbo Jet,' 'Cotton Candy' and 'Irene Nuss' -- which is a newer large-leafed cane that has big, ruffly, serrated, angel-wing leaves -- all bloom well."

Care and maintenance

"There is a begonia to fit any cultural situation," says Martin.

Depending on type and cultivar, begonias vary in light and moisture requirements, though most prefer filtered or diffuse sun -- an east window or sunny room as opposed to a south-facing or west-facing window that heats up in the afternoon -- and most prefer to dry out slightly between waterings.

"The rhizomatous begonias almost like drought conditions," Martin says. "Just water them once a week or so, and that's it."

The main thing to watch for is mildew.

"The rexes are particularly susceptible," Martin says. "To prevent mildew, use a tablespoon of baking soda to a quart of water with a dash of dishwashing detergent. Then spray the plant with that every change of season. Covering them with this light film inhibits the spores from growing."


Logee's Greenhouses

141 North St.

Danielson, CT 06239


Antonelli Bros. Begonia Gardens

2545 Capitola Road

Santa Cruz, CA 95062

888-423-4664 or 831-475-5222 / sc / market /


Glasshouse Works

Church Street

P.O. Box 97

Stewart, OH 45778


Davidson Greenhouse

3147 E. Ladoga Road

Crawfordsville, IN 47933


Radebaugh Florist and Greenhouses

120 E. Burke Ave.

Towson, MD 21286

800-584-5300, 410-825-4300

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