One of my real joys in life, other than my family, pets and job, is my greenhouse and all the plants growing in it. Perhaps my favorites are the fancy-leaved begonias I have been amassing over the past 15 or so years.
I clearly remember my maternal grandmother’s sun porch on Huntington Avenue in Buffalo, New York. She puttered there daily, caring for her large assortment of houseplants — deadheading spent blooms, cutting away withered leaves and shaping leggy specimens into more manageable forms.
She grew begonias, and loved showing me the different varieties of this expansive genus. I became enamored with the incredible textures and colors, and tried hard to remember the characteristics of the various types: tuberous, rex, semperflorens, fibrous and rhizomatous. The last were my favorites, and remain so today.
I have an entire bench devoted to begonias in my greenhouse, and grow many rhizomatous cultivars for their spectacular leaves, which range in size from less than an inch across to more than 12 inches wide. The plants themselves are manageable in size and can be housed in shallow pots (just 6 to 8 inches deep).
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Rhizomatous varieties are very showy, remarkably pest-free and easy to care for, requiring watering every five to seven days (be careful not to overwater). Flowers appear once a year, but the blooms are small and insignificant compared to the colorful and vibrant foliage. Small scissors are the only tool necessary; they’re essential for removing a damaged leaf or deadheading a flowering stem.
When properly grown, begonias last for years and add great beauty to your home. Whenever I entertain, I bring in the best ones from the greenhouse to adorn each of my rooms, where they create an exquisite show. I like to add to my collection whenever I visit botanical gardens, nurseries and even friends’ gardens; propagation from leaves can be accomplished in just a few simple steps.
I encourage each of you to try growing these delightful plants at home. And once you do, I bet you will start a collection of your own.
Tips for growing begonias
▪ To propagate a new plant, cut a leaf and place its stem in moist soil; in a few months, new leaves should appear. This indicates it has taken root and is ready to be potted.
▪ Begonias dislike wet feet. Between waterings, let the soil dry out slightly. When the growing season begins in early spring, start feeding the plants with an organic 3-3-3 fertilizer.
▪ For the best results, place pots in a warm room with bright indirect light.
Martha’s tried-and-true sources
For unusual varieties, go to Logee’s (logees.com) and Glasshouse Works (glasshouseworks.com).
Foliage in full
With their striking patterns and rich colors, these sturdy showoffs work the room without a lot of fuss. Here are some of Martha’s favorites
B. “Selph’s Mahogany” — In winter, its large burgundy-green foliage erupts in a spray of delicate pink flower.
Begonia Acetosa — This Brazilian native has cupped, velvety green leaves that are vivid red underneath; it grows well on a sunny windowsill.
B. “Little Brother Montgomery” — Exploding with starburst-shaped maroon-and-silver foliage, it also features fragrant blooms when mature.
B. Soli-Mutata — Its name means “sun change,” because the color varies depending on the amount of exposure it gets — the more sun, the lighter the pebble-textured leaves will be.
B. Carolineifolia — Native to Mexico and Central America, the species has a woody trunk and glossy foliage that is divided into smaller leaflets at the base.
B. “Wightii” — Also known as B. maculata variegata, this angel-wing fibrous type displays large leaves dotted with silver spots, and white flowers that can bloom year-round with ample light.
B. “Madame Queen” — A vigorous grower with large, ruffly leaves that resemble a flouncy skirt, it can reach 14 inches in height.
B.X “Fuscomaculata” — Spotted orangey-green leaves distinguish this rhizomatous type. Pinch back long stems during the growing season to encourage a more robust plant.
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