Posted on | September 23, 2011 | 3 Comments
The late Christopher Lloyd memorably said ‘If I was reduced to growing only one genus, Begonias would be it.’ I too find this genus absolutely fascinating and have been growing Begonias for decades and never cease to admire there beauty.
Begonias are in a genus of about 900 species of perennials, shrubs and climbers. It is a very diverse family of plants which can be fibrous rooted like the well-known bedding plant Begonia semperflorens with its blowsy flowers or it can be tuberous rooted like those ever-popular types with their enormous waxy, almost plastic-looking blooms in day-glow colours. Then there are those which are grown for their foliage, like the showy-leaved Begonia Rex that line the shelves in the house plant section of garden centres. Luckily for lovers of this handsome family of plants, there are several that are hardly enough to survive most winters in the warmer parts of our gardens.
The best known hardy begonia is Begonia grandis ssp. Evansiana. This delicate looking though tough begonia is tuberous rooted from which red branched stems emerge from mid-to-late spring according to weather conditions. It grows to about 20in tall with a 12in spread by mid-summer though once established colonies many feet across will grace your garden. The broad fleshy leaves of this hardy Begonia are pale green above and flushed red with prominent veining underneath on red leaf stalks. In high summer and right through the autumn, delicate pink 1-1½ins wide flowers are produced from the leaf axils in nodding clusters well above the foliage. The flowers and leaves look especially attractive in the evening when the sun shines through the foliage and flowers at this time of year. I must admit, I thought that last winter’s big freeze had seen them off as the ground was frozen solid for weeks. Luckily though this tenacious begonia started to re-sprout from mid May here at the Exotic Garden. I was so please as this is such a beautiful begonia with amazing hardiness!
Not quite so common but equally attractive is Begonia Grandis Subsp. Evansiana Var. Alba, a very attractive white-flowered form that is well worth seeking out. In the autumn when the leaves start to turn yellow, small bulbils are formed in abundance in the leaf axils (where the leaf attaches to the main stem) which fall to the ground, thus forming new plants and creating a colony. These can also be collected and grown on for planting in other dappled shade parts of the garden. They also make excellent container plants.
Several hardy forms have been discovered in recent years by Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones, of Crûg Farm Plants in North Wales, on their plant-hunting expeditions in Taiwan and other parts of Asia. One in particular – Begonia grandis ‘Sapporo’ – is a very hardy form of this species from Sapporo, capital city of Hokkaido on Japan’s north island, where the winters can be severe. This gem grows to a height of about 35ins tall in its native habitat, with erect stems that are red at the nodes, which in turn produce bulbils in the leaf axils in autumn. It is very distinctive in foliage and form, with large, palmate, dark green leaves which are a striking shade of dark red underneath. The pink flowers are borne in terminal sprays, opening from reddish buds in late summer then continuing to bloom until first frost making this another excellent hardy begonia for the garden.
Begonia grandis ssp. evansiana ‘Pink Parasol’ also collected by Bleddyn and Sue from Shikoku, Japan, where it grows to a height of 35in with luxurious palmate leaves and bearing sprays of pink flowers, opening from reddish buds from mid-summer to first-frost. It also produces bulbils – or as they should be more correctly called – advantageous tubers.
Although only hardy in the warmest gardens, Begonia sutherlandii is always popular at the Exotic Garden as a container plant that is overwintered frost free. This beauty is a dense, many branched, clump-forming, tuberous begonia, growing to a height and spread of about 18in with bright green, slightly toothed, lance-shaped leaves up to 6ins long, often with red veining. Throughout the summer, panicles of pendant bright orange flowers up to 1in across are freely produced. This delightful begonia also produces bulbils in the leaf axils. It makes an excellent container or hanging basket plant. I find it’s rather prone to powdery mildew – greyish white patches forming on the leaves. If untreated the whole plant becomes rather unsightly, so prompt action should be taken by spraying with a suitable fungicide.
If on the other hand you feel like being rather brash with your planting – something I always enjoy – then try planting out some of the more tender species and varieties for the summer. A drift of Begonia rex in a moist shady corner will always turn an eye. Many of the more unusual houseplant types can be kept in containers and grouped together in varying sizes to create a tropical looking setting. Just remember to keep them out of the sun and moist at all times. Some years ago I bought quite a few cane types, those that can become tall with stiff fairly upright stems that can become hard and woody with age. My favourite cane-type has to be Begonia luxurians (Palm Leaf Begonia) from the rain forests of Brazil. It is a tall shrubby cane-like begonias growing from 4 to 8ft tall over a few years. It is clothed with large slightly hairy leaves that are palmately dissected (finger-like) into narrow leaflets, the whole leaf easily being 1ft or more across with distinct red centres and coppery undersides giving the whole plant a ridiculously exotic appearance. From early spring to autumn it produces terminal clusters of small creamy white flowers with a slight scent. This monstrous begonia is hardy down to 0C though I store it with all my other more tender begonias at around 5C.
There are many other Begonias worth growing outside during the summer’s months which grow really well in our cool summers as long as they are over wintered frost free, so have a go it’s always good to try something new in your garden.
Have a great weekend in your garden and enjoy the glorious autumnal weather – I know I will!