Neil Sperry

Dragon Wing begonias are the tops

Dragon Wing begonias add color to this grouping of variegated tapioca and coleus.
Dragon Wing begonias add color to this grouping of variegated tapioca and coleus. Special to the Star-Telegram

It was 10 or 12 years ago that I saw my first Dragon Wing begonias. They were in large hanging baskets in a Metroplex nursery. Just a few days later I saw them being used in profusion at the Dallas Arboretum. And then everywhere I turned, they were showing up in large commercial landscapes.

It wasn’t long until they also showed up in the Sperry home gardens, too. They’ve never left since.

I’ve been a fan of wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens) since I was a teenager, and I’ve seen lots of improved types come and go over those years. But none of them ever compared in boldness and beauty to the hybrid Dragon Wings.

These aren’t just ordinary old hybrid begonias, however. They’re interspecific hybrids, meaning that there are two separate species involved in producing them. It’s a tedious job that requires a lot of handwork. That explains why the seeds and the plants are more expensive than many other types of begonias, and it also explains why they bring great hybrid vigor to the garden.

Their flowers are either red or pink, depending on variety, and they’re two or three times the size of wax begonia blooms. Their leaves are elongated, angel-wing types. They’re dark, glossy green, the perfect backdrop to the colorful flowers.

The plants grow to 14 to 16 inches tall and wide, and the flowers are produced from the day that you plant them until the night of the first freeze. You’ll never get greater value for your annual color investment.

Dragon Wings do best with morning sun, then shade in the afternoon. I actually have several that get very little direct sunlight, but they do get what is called “bright shade,” and they’re doing quite well. They’ve been in the same location in our Metroplex landscape for three years each.

Of course, they head to the greenhouse when temperatures start to fall into the 30s in late October or early November. You could overwinter them in a bright southern window, but you would want to rotate them 180 degrees once a week. A sunroom with skylights and large windows would be great, too.

I trim mine back by several inches during or at the end of the winter, just before I bring them back out of the greenhouse. That keeps them low-branching and compact, but it also gives me a source of new cuttings if I choose to root them for new plants for my gardens.

You’ll see Dragon Wings sold in 4-inch, and especially 6-inch, pots in nurseries. However, I usually go “big time” and buy handsome hanging baskets that are full of flowers. I can repot those into large (16-inch) patio pots filled with loose, highly organic potting soil. The plants never know they’ve been moved, and they look like they’ve been growing in our gardens for months.

Due to cost, I probably wouldn’t do that if I wanted to use them in beds. That’s when I’d plant 6-inch pots and space them 14 inches apart. Then let the winter take them, buying new plants come spring each year.

Like wax begonias, Dragon Wings bloom on new growth. I fertilize my plants with a water-soluble, high-nitrogen plant food. Since water drains away from their roots when they’re grown in containers, I’ll normally feed my Dragon Wings every time that I water them. When mixed according to label directions, I’m applying very diluted solutions.

In beds, I apply a high-nitrogen, slow-release food, and then I top it all off with the same water-soluble product every few weeks. I want them to grow, but I don’t want them to grow lanky and soft.

Plants to grow with Dragon Wing begonias

You have a multitude of companion-plant options. Since Dragon Wings have a relatively coarse texture, ferns are always good contrast. Or white caladiums, or lime-green coleus or ornamental sweet potatoes.

I’m trying something a little bit different this year along our driveway. I’ve converted three large glazed pots from fountains into planters, and a Dragon Wing inhabits one. For almost shocking contrast, I’ve planted variegated tapioca in another and golden coleus in the third. So far, so good. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out by late summer and fall.

Occasionally I’ll plant New Blue Wonder fanflowers in front of, or pentas alongside my Dragon Wing begonias. That’s like bringing the A-team to the tournament — some of our very best shade color plants for North Texas. The colors can complement one another, and their cultural needs match up so long as you give them that morning sun with shade all afternoon.

But I think my favorite way to use Dragon Wing begonias is simply to plant them into those large patio pots you find in almost every fine nursery, and then position the plants and pots in prime spots of high visibility. They are ready to steal the show in their parts of your gardens, and you’ll rejoice for that thievery.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

  Comments