These beautiful plants make a wonderful start to your indoor garden.
Begonias, indestructible? Easy for me to say: Begonia is almost my middle name. Over my long and deep green past, I have grown just about every begonia known to humanity. Well, not really, because there are upward of 900 species out there, not to mention the thousands of cultivars created by folks like me, who feel 900 is not nearly enough. But during my twenty-five-year tenure at Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut, I curated the begonia collection happily and intensively. The assemblage originally included the rhizomatous, rex, cane, angel wing, semperflorens, semi-tuberous, tuberous, and hiemalis groups. I do not recommend them all as bulletproof, but some are pretty tough cookies.
All begonias are irresistible. But you need to know which members of this alluring family are toughest so you can succeed without shedding tears.
First, you need to focus on the rhizomatous group. This is where you will find the wonderful hand-me-down begonias you inherited from your grandmother. Before central heat, indoor plumbing, and all the other modern conveniences, a few stalwart begonias were chugging along in less-than-ideal home settings. The two stars of the show were pond lily begonia, Begonia ‘Erythrophylla’ (aka beefsteak begonia), and star begonia, B. ‘Ricinifolia’ (aka castor bean begonia, probably the first begonia hybrid). You likely know these two most-wanted heirlooms on sight. Pond lily begonia has smooth, shiny, round leaves with a bronze cast. Star begonia has (you guessed it) star-shaped green leaves with a chenille of bristly red hairs on the leaf petioles. Both are nearly unkillable, although they can come down with powdery mildew if continually subjected to poor air circulation and dank conditions. But generally they are impervious. And although powdery mildew defaces some leaves, the plant will survive the affliction. In general, the only problems gardeners face with these vintage rhizomatous begonias is how to give old, gnarly plants new life.
While we’re on the subject, here’s how to rejuvenate rhizomatous begonias and give them further zest. First, cut back the old rhizomes. Rhizomatous begonias send up growth from arms and legs that creep along the top of the soil. These swollen appendages are not particularly handsome; indeed, they look slightly arthritic. But they are your targets for makeover surgery. Do not cut them back to their fat, woody origins. Instead, try to save some younger sections and remove straggly growth. If you do it correctly, you will have a newly invigorated plant. It’s like molting. And, of course, if you don’t mind the straggly presentation, there’s no harm in leaving your inherited begonia alone.
Pond lily and castor bean begonias are just the beginning. The plant has come a long way. There are loads of rhizomatous begonias out there, and many are equally rock solid. In a family that can be dicey, many are not prima donnas. Begonia ‘Zip’, B. ‘River Nile’, B. ‘Tiger Kitten’, and many others aim to please. These add some dash to your home with their colorful, mottled, or striped leaves. There are some truly challenging rare species of rhizomatous begonias, but most of the readily available rhizomatous are a cakewalk.
Flowers are also in your cards with the rhizomatous clan, especially in late winter, when they send up wands of tiny colorful blooms to quell the pangs of cabin fever. The pink, salmon, or white blossoms are adorable, and they make all the difference at a time of year when you’re starving for color.
Although rhizomatous begonias are relatively easy, they will not endure constantly wet foliage or consistently damp roots. Do not drench this plant. In fact, if you lean in the drier direction, your relationship will be better. Another trick is to aim the watering can at the soil surface rather than the leaves. Begonias don’t like wet foliage. Do not grant them overly generous root room, as there is not a begonia on Earth that likes to swim in its pot. Their root systems grow horizontally, so most prefer shallow containers to deep pots.
The majority of begonias like to be stationed in an east- or west-facing window where they receive good light but not baking sun. A north-facing window is pushing it. South works in winter, but can scorch in summer. Begonias do not like chilly conditions. When working begonias into the indoor scenery, I play up their texture because many have furry, eyelashed leaves. Since I’m a collector, the dialogue is often between several begonias grown side by side. But ferns and orchids are good growing mates too. The tapestry that results can read well with upholstered furniture and nubby throws for the sofa. Begonias work equally well in a Victorian home or a contemporary scene. Put a begonia in a spare modern setting and its leaf shape says a lot, even in a limited space.
Coming in at second place behind rhizomatous begonias would be the angel wing branch of the cane group. You have probably encountered these majestic plants in your travels. Their leaves come in all sizes, they tend to be wing shaped, and they can have intriguing markings. Flower umbels can be immense and colorful, and they hold steady in pristine condition for weeks. Although angel wings are not that difficult to grow, they require some strategic and frequent pruning to keep the plant appealing. Otherwise you will be staring at a forest of naked stems with leaves at their tips. It’s not a happy picture. With pruning, they can be quite elegant. This is the plant for anyone who is fond of taking cuttings.
Whichever way you go with begonias, good things are in store. They offer diversity beyond your wildest dreams. You could explore this family for decades and not grow even slightly bored. I know this from experience.
Size: Ranging from 3 to 30 inches (7 to 76 cm) high
Foliage: Extremely diverse, with all sorts of leaf shapes, textures, and sizes available
Other attributes: Midwinter blossoms
Exposure: East or west
Water requirements: Allow soil to dry out between waterings
Optimum nighttime temperature: 55–70°F (12–21°C)
Rate of growth: Medium
Soil type: Rich, humusy, peaty potting soil with compost included
Fertilizing: Early spring to late autumn
Issues: Powdery mildew can be a problem
Companions: African violets, bromeliads, ferns, mosses, nerve plants, plectranthus, and any other low-light individuals
Excerpted from The Indestructible Houseplant by Tovah Martin. Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Kindra Clineff. Used with permission from Timber Press.
This original healthy living article first appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.