We used to rely on impatiens to fill the darker corners of our gardens, but recently, these old favourites have been hit by a noxious virus and can suddenly appear to melt right off their roots just when they are beginning to look gorgeous.
Many of us have turned to begonias as a result, and what a rewarding experience that is becoming. Sure, the old-fashioned, heavily blossomed and brilliantly coloured tuberous and fibrous varieties are still here to brighten up that dull corner, but there is now so much more. Begonias, although there are many that love shade, are no longer banished to the dark side. New sun-tolerant varieties will take as much sunlight as you can give them, and they are reliable and hardworking bloomers.
My favourite, though, is the tough and resilient Dragon Wing begonia, a sun-to-part-shade plant that has giant possibilities. Although some experts say they do best in hot, humid conditions, I have grown them with success in every circumstance. Just one or two of these beauties in a generously-sized container will put on a wonderful show until the frost settles. The flowers are not large but resemble pink-to-red butterflies, and there are many, many blossoms, perkily standing out from their large, protective wing-shaped, medium green leaves. They need little water, will take a little sun, and generally prefer to be left alone.
The Solenia series is now a well-tested, tried and true group of begonias that I recommend to everyone. They come in pink, red and yellow, and absolutely adore the sun. They are fairly drought tolerant, although an evenly moist soil is best. The flowers are moderately sized, but bloom in such copious clusters that this is never an issue. A cluster of Solenia flowers can completely block the leaves from our critical eyes.
In true begonia style, the colours are very bright and compelling and include yellow, red, pink, peach and stunning orange.
I am not a particular fan of wax begonias but they can be useful for mass plantings, where they will grow in both shade and part shade – even full sunlight if well hydrated and not too hot. These annuals are planted from seed.
There is also the four-petalled, bell-shaped Begonia boliviensis, originating from Bolivar and grown from a tuber. The bright orange flowers are pendulous and tubular in shape.
Less in favour these days is the cascading begonia that sends out its blossoms on long trailers. They make an impressive display but are sensitive to moisture conditions – too wet and the tubers will rot, too dry and the flowers will drop. They are also subject to powdery mildew and fungal leaf spot. Keep them out of the sun.
Finally, there is the fantastic foliage of the rex begonia. While they produce insignificant flowers, the leaves are spectacular. Some grow in a spiral like a snail, others are the shape of maple leafs; still others are round or pointed. Some are red, others silver, and there are many variations and variegations in between. Textures can vary from pebbly and hairy to curly edged. They over winter well and are really best appreciated as a pride of position feature plant. Don’t over water. They make an ideal houseplant.
In fact, only begonias grown from tubers die back in winter and should be stored as bulbs.
The thing about flowering begonias is their brilliant colours. Begonia ‘Crispa Marginata’ is an absolute show stopper with its yellow centre surrounded by white petals outlined in frilly red. There is a cascading begonia that has bright yellow petals, rimmed in orange. If you like brilliant eye-stopping colour, begonias are the plant for you.
They are heavy feeders so keep them well fertilized throughout their flowering season. They do like to be deadheaded to stay healthy and beautiful. They tolerate a wide range of light conditions so be sure to check preferences for the variety you are growing, but if in doubt, they pretty well all respond to bright filtered light. Remember, that they are fleshy plants that retain a lot of water in their parts, so spare the water, keeping them on the dryer side or at least just evenly moist.
Dorothy Dobbie is the publisher of Manitoba Gardener magazine. For subscriptions, call Shelley at 204 940 2700 or go to www.localgardener.net. Dorothy broadcasts a weekly gardening show on CJNU 93.7 FM at 8:00 Sunday mornings.