Begonias are so cheerful – in the dead of winter indoors, in the height of summer outdoors.
“I think I might like the yellow tuberous ones the best – they are common but so consistent and cheerful,” Sally Greenwood, Head Grower at Chico Propagators for many years and which is now part of The Plant Barn in Chico, tells me as we scan the multitude of begonias growing in her care in Chico. Sally, a respected regional plantswoman (who even has plant hybrids named in her honor, such as the Salvia ‘Sally Greenwood’ bred by another regional plantsman, Mike Thiede), has been growing specialty plants for the past 30 years (which is a little hard to believe given her youthful appearance). For close to a decade of that time, the CSU, Chico and Butte College Horticulture graduate has been smitten with the many interesting, exotic and often heirloom varieties of begonias. Photo: While you may think of small candy-colored flowers on begonias, many types have delicate but dramatic flowers, such as this Begonia ‘Mrs. Ludwig’.
The Begonia genus comprises some 1300 plus cultivars, most originating from the tropics or subtropics, and most are tender, succulent perennials. Begonias are commonly divided into several overarching groups based on foliage and growth type – the best known groups are perhaps the Rex begonias (technically: Rex-cultorum begonias), marked by their multi-colored foliage, the Tuberous begonias, which include the stocky little succulent bedding plants loved for their brightly colored single or double flowers, and the Cane begonias, which given some protection from wind and frost can grow to be very tall shrubs with nobby stems. Photo: Left: a cane type begonia almost 3 feet tall, Right: A diminutive but cheerful yellow long-blooming, roseform tuberous begonia.
Sally’s collection of now more than 30 different Begonia species and varieties ranges from the very large, showy, tropical and sometimes rare, to the very small, sedate and familiar. The collection has grown one variety at a time in a very old-fashioned way in the form of “passalong plants,” brought to Sally at the greenhouse by gardeners young and old who wanted help propagating their old or hard to find plants for their homes, gardens or to give to other family members or gardeners. Photo: Sally Greenwood standing at the end of one section of her begonia collection in the commercial greenhouses.
“I have a lot of interesting begonias from Donna Murrill of Durham, as well as from a handful of other regional gardeners. Each time I am given a plant to grow on from an older plant, I keep one plant as a ‘mother’ or ‘stock plant’ in order to keep the variety available. This helps to regenerate the stock and provide gardeners with plants that are not so woody or overgrown.” Photo: Rhizomatous Begonia ‘Black Coffee’.
Sally’s “mother-plants” are mostly fairly big stately specimens in large pots clearly marked NOT FOR SALE. The rest of the collection – in hanging baskets, in 4 inch pots, in gallons, and some even rooted into the gravel floor of the greenhouse, overflows many shelves within the greenhouse and calls out for attention to their bright and delicate flowers or their textural and interestingly colored foliage. Photo: A curvaceous so-called angel wing begonia.
“The tuberous begonias can of course be planted outside and in many cases they will last over from year to year in valley gardens,” Sally says. “Most of the other begonias that you would grow in pots indoors are very happy to go outside in our summer heat as long as they are in dappled shade with regular water. They don’t want to be sitting in water,” she warns, “but they don’t like to dry out either, and you will need to bring them back inside before the first frost.” She adds that with their often dramatic foliage, “they make nice accents in container plantings all summer or even in your flower border with similar conditions. Photo: The low growing and rounded, translucent-leaved Begonia ‘Cathedral’.
Sally grows her plants in a rich but well draining planting mix and for best results recommends a balanced liquid fertilizer once a month. “Some begonias can get leggy over time, but you can easily prune them back to a node and then try to root that cutting – in water or with rooting hormone in a planting mix,” she explains. Most begonias are fairly easy to propagate by stem cuttings, leaf cuttings or from seed. Photo: A distinctive dragon wing begonia.
According to several sources, the Begonia genus was so named in the early 1700s by French botanist Charles Plumier in honor of botany enthusiast Michel Bégon (1638 – 1710), born in San Domingo, later governor of Canada. After being introduced to horticulturists in europe and England, begonias were crossed and hybridized and feverishly collected. The history of begonias and their interesting looks has long meant that as a genus they appeal to serious collectors. Photo: An ‘eyelash’ begonia, so-called for the rim of lashes around the edge of each leaf.
The more academic and unusual of the begonias notwithstanding, an equal number of begonias are “universally appealing and easy to grow,” Sally tells me with enthusiasm. “I try to propagate plenty of the more interesting tuberous and rex begonias, which are good looking and easy. I want people to be successful and not get discouraged.” Photo, Left: B. ‘Bulls-Eye; Right: B. ‘Green Swirl’.
If you are interested in adding some cheer and color to your late summer pots and gardens, begonias make a great choice, and can then be brought indoors in pots to brighten your winter as well. If you have old or unknown variety begonias that you would like help rejuvenating or propagating, Sally Greenwood can help – email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donna Murrill has been a member of the Sacramento Begonia group for years: Joan Coulat – Sacramento Branch American Begonia Society, which meets on the Third Tuesday night of each month at 7:15 pm except for February and November. They meet at the Shepard Garden and Arts Center, 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento. Sacramento Branch: Shelly Berlant 916-486-9505
The National Begonia Society of the United Kingdom: http://www.national-begonia-society.co.uk/
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here. Weekly essays are also posted on anewscafe.com a regional news source that is simultaneously universal and positively North State.