I confess, growing up in southern California, I have always had an affection for begonias. My very first purchase, at the young age of 8, was from the county fair and was a rhizomatous variety that I grew for many years. As it got too large for its pot, I would break off sections and root them to share with all the elderly widows in the neighborhood. In return, they gave me homemade cookies and slices of lemon pie (Mrs. Brown made the absolute best lemon pie, from scratch no less). While I have never met a begonia I didn’t like, the number of varieties to choose from is far too numerous to cover in a short column like this, so I am going to focus on three of my favorites that are garden worthy.
Waxleaf Begonias: Also known as fibrous begonias, these were the consummate bedding-out annual plants back in Victorian Days. Like impatiens, gardeners would plant flats of them en masse and they would bloom all summer long with white, pink, or red flowers and either red or green foliage. They were absolutely indestructible and would grow in sun or shade, reaching only 12 inches tall. A few years back breeders came out with a larger version called Dragon Wings that had the same glossy foliage and grew 18 inches tall. As a larger scale plant, you don’t need as many of them to create the same impact. This year, the new guy on the block is called “Mega-Watt”. It is a stunning variety with even larger stature and lots of flowers all summer long. You won’t be disappointed.
Bolivian Begonias: This species came on the market several years ago and I was immediately smitten. The original introduction was called Bonfire (still my favorite) and has bright orange flowers, somewhat resembling fuchsias. The leaves are pointed, similar to angel-wing begonias, and form clumps spreading two feet wide and high. In the northwest we can grow Bonfires in morning sun to all day sun, as long as they have plenty of water. While Bonfire is a little too stiff for baskets, I would recommend Mistral, in orange or red, or the Bossanova series that comes in salmon shades or rose. All Bolivian begonias form a tuber that you can save from year to year if you keep them from freezing (you will be amazed at how much larger they will be the second year).
Tuberous Begonias: This variety of begonia has a large hairy leaf and flowers that look like carnations on steroids. Color choices include white, red, orange, yellow, salmon and beautiful bicolors that come in both upright and hanging forms. Sold under the name of AmeriHybrid Tuberous Begonias, these are the real McCoy and should not be confused with the lesser “non-stop” begonias. AmeriHybrids can have flowers up to 4 to 5 inches across and are absolutely spectacular when featured individually in a pot. As for the “non-stop” varieties, I have to confess that they have come a long way since their early introduction, with the newer forms sporting lots of blooms throughout the summer on mounding plants that are well-suited for hanging baskets or containers in shady locations.
All begonias thrive in rich moist soil and some filtered shade, although fibrous begonias (along with impatiens and coleus) will take full sun as long as they are well watered. Feed them often and they will be happy growing either individually or mixed in with other shade lovers, like ferns, hostas, astilbes, fuchsias or ornamental grasses.