The Begonia 411
We share some varieties to try in your home and garden.
Image courtesy of Longfield Gardens
You don’t expect to see the color pink when you drive past industrial parks or manufacturing and distribution centers, as I often do. Those big complexes with trucks moving in and out all day are mostly asphalt and, well, just plain ugly.
But come spring, I’ve noticed waves and beds of pink around them. Some landscaper has been at work, and now the driveways and lawns have been edged in sweet pink begonias. It’s amazing what a difference those little flowers make when they’re planted in masses, and they’re especially striking when the trees and shrubs around them change from pale spring green to summer’s rich emerald.
The flowers I’ve been seeing are wax begonias, also known as semperflorens begonias, and you’ll find them with green, variegated or bronze-colored leaves and white, rose, pink or red blossoms. They’re great for mass plantings because they grow uniformly, making neat mounds of color wherever they grow.
Even if you’re not a fan of wax begonias, you’ll find lots of other kinds to choose from. Here’s a sampler of beauties to try:
These are the gorgeous flowers you often see sold in nurseries and garden centers in late winter or early spring. Look for them in bright red, yellow, pink, white and orange. Many people toss them after the flowers fade, because they need lots of bright light to flourish as houseplants. But they should keep blooming if you move them, after all frost danger has passed, into a bright spot outdoors. Just don’t put them in direct sun. Water when the top inch of soil dries out, and avoid getting the leaves wet.
If you love foliage plants, you’ll like these begonias, which produce big, multicolored leaves. Give them good humidity and even water. They can take less light than other begonias and even perform well under fluorescents. Their smallish blooms aren’t showy, but their silvery, purple, reddish or green leaves are showstoppers.
Most of these prolific bloomers are tuberous begonias. They’re great in containers and hanging baskets, where they bloom in scarlet, pink, yellow, apricot, salmon and rose. I love the picotee types, which have lighter petals edged in a dark color. They typically bloom from summer into fall, and because they like partial sun to shade, they’ll give darker areas in the garden a burst of vibrant color. Start the tubers in spring, but make sure the soil and weather are reliably warm before transplanting.
You may have heard your grandmother — or grandfather, if he was the family gardener — call these "angel-wing begonias." Their stems are woody, with bamboo-like joints. Let the top inch of the soil dry out before watering, and avoid hot midday sun. Cane begonias can get really tall. When you need to control them, lop them back to about 4 inches high.
Dragon Wing Begonias
A cross between cane and wax begonias, these plants are ideal for hanging baskets, so you can see their hanging flower clusters. They’ll bloom from spring to fall in red, pink and white. Like other begonias, they prefer filtered shade and well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. To overwinter them, cut them back and move them indoors to a brightly lit spot.
How To Grow Begonias:
It takes a long time to grow begonias from their seeds, which are as fine as dust, but you can buy bedding plants. If you’re not in a rush, begonias are also easy to root from a stem, leaf or rhizome.
Begonias are annuals or tender perennials that need filtered shade and rich, fast-draining soil. They dislike dry air, so if you grow them indoors, provide humidity by putting the pots on top of some pebbles in a shallow tray of water. Don’t let the roots touch the water. Feed your plants regularly, but avoid overfertilizing, and keep the soil slightly moist.
To Jump-Start Your Begonias:
Tuberous begonias need warm temperatures and at least moderate humidity before they’ll sprout, but you can start them inside in a terrarium, so they’ll be ready to move outdoors once the weather is reliably warm. What you’re doing is forcing the begonia to grow before it normally would, which gives you a head start on the growing season.
To force a begonia tuber, put it hollow-side up in a medium-sized peat pot filled with lightweight, porous potting soil. Cover it with ½” of the soil. Place the pot on a plate and moisten the soil.
Now cover the pot with a glass dome and give it a brightly lit spot in your home. An indoor temperature of 65 to 75 degrees is ideal. Sprouts should pop up in 10 to 12 days. After they’re about ½” high, remove the dome and water when the soil feels dry to the touch.
You can transplant your begonia into the garden or a container after 2 to 4 medium-sized leaves appear and all danger of frost has passed. Give it a shady spot with morning or late afternoon sun, and keep the faded flowers removed so the blooms keep coming. Longfield Gardens sells a variety of terrarium kits.