With over 1,700 different species, Begonia (family Begoniaceae) is the fifth most diverse class of plants. Begonias are often found wild from South and Central America to India. It is impossible to know exactly where they originated, but stories of plants matching their description date back to 14th century China.
Begonias officially got their name in 1690 when a French botanist, Charles Plumier, named them after a fellow French botanist, Michel Bégon.
How To Grow In The Garden
With one exception below, begonias are plants for shade and part shade if they are to grow their best. Plants will survive out in the sun but the leaves will tend to crack and change color to a more reddish-tone (or have red edges)
They are shallow rooted so you do need to feed at least weekly to keep them growing. This is the major cause of poor growth.
The second thing about the shallow roots is that they do require regular watering to keep them growing. They’ll “survive” under drought conditions but not happily.
Begonia seed is barely larger than dust particles, so it is incredibly challenging to work with.
When I had the nursery, I’d start my fibrous begonias in January for a May sales date. But I’d purchase “pelleted” seed (seed covered with a water-soluble coating) so my seeder could pick the individual seed up and put each one into its own germination area of the special trays we used. I’d usually get a decent germination rate using this system.
I do remember one year I tried to handle the seed without a coating and handling invisible dust is the best way to put it.
My .02 is that you either buy your begonias or produce them yourself from overwintered cuttings.
Here are the major classes that you will see in North American garden retailers
- Begonia semperflorens-cultorum or “wax begonias “are the most common. Plants are small (8-12”) mounds with rounded leaves and blooms. Flowers range from white to scarlet red.
- Begonia tuberosa (tuberous begonias) typically have large flowers in a broad color range. Flowers can be huge and double. Since the plants are monoecious, there are always both single (male) and double (female) flowers on the same plant. The leaves are usually asymmetrical, hairy or fuzzy and have a serrated edge.
- Begonia boliviensis is more heat tolerant than other types. The plant branches cascade down in hanging baskets or window boxes. The leaves are similar in shape to tuberous begonias but are narrower and smooth. The flower has long, strap-like petals forming a soft trumpet.
- Begonia hiemalis, also called elatior or Reiger begonia, typically have small to medium double flowers in a wide range of colors. These are often sold around the holidays.
- Begonia masoniana has bold color patterns on leaves that are textured with puckers and appear coarse.
- Begonia rhizomatous has thick, fleshy stems with large, colorful leaves. The leaves can be round or heavily lobed like a grape leaf. Some have small white flowers in the spring, and a few varieties bloom all summer.
- Begonia rex are grown for their beautiful leaves, which are quite hairy or fuzzy and usually covered with multicolored, intricate swirled designs.
- Begonia hybrida is used by plant breeders to show that a variety is a cross between two different classes.
Two Important Kinds For Different Gardens
If you grow no other kind – grow these.
Nonstop Begonias were the first F1 hybrid tuberous begonia series from seed that featured a uniform, compact habit, huge double flowers in lots of bright colors.
I remember when these were introduced to the trade and I started growing them in the greenhouses (about 30 years ago now). They were instant hits then and are still the best selling tuberous begonia on the market!
Big and Whopper Begonia series. These begonias provide an amazing show of color all season, yet they are super easy to grow. They thrive in both sun and shade, take little fertilization and only require about an inch of water per week. This allows them to be used in non-irrigated landscapes in much of the US. I haven’t yet grown these but they’re on my list for this year.
Begonia ‘Pegasus’ (Proven Winners)
Proven Winners provided the plants for this review. Great foliage plant. Never bloomed in the garden or container. Large heavily variegated leaves were upright to 12-18 inches. Held well up and other plants could be tucked under it to fill up the open spaces. I grew it both in containers and the main shade garden (shade loving plant – not sun) and it grows equally well in both conditions.
If you want a good foliage plant, you won’t go wrong with this one.
Note: I am indebted to the National Garden Bureau for content/images.