There are lots of groups of plants that divide opinion, genera containing a wide diversity of plants are almost bound to. Even genera with a narrow range can get caught up in disputes, take Cyclamen, among the straight species it is almost inconceivable you could love one but loathe another; but bring in the all the hybrids that proliferate in the winter months and it’s a very different story. The same would be true of Primula as a genus.
Begonias are another. Among the species there are none that are weedy or invasive in UK conditions. Yet they manage to span the full range between naff, old fashioned, vulgar bedding plants at one end, think B. semperflorens, and classy, connoisseur type plants at the other, think B. luxurians. Me being me, I grow both.
Many have been grown only as house plants, often more for the foliage than flowers, and houseplants have a slightly different aura of snobbery around them in that they are in the main mass marketed as disposable ornaments, lasting longer than cut flowers but doomed to fail, for want of suitable growing conditions, within weeks or at most months. That’s fine, throw it away and buy another.
Fuelled by a trickle of new species found growing in the wild in various parts of the world, there has over the last ten years been a blip of interest, I won’t say surge because that exaggerates it, in growing Begonias in the open garden. A key part of that lies in the claim that many of the new introductions are hardy.
A species that has been around for a long time is B. grandis subsp. evansiana. I grow a pink and a white form of it and both are splendid plants. It is reputed to be hardy and generally if it is left in the garden it will come back up again in subsequent years. In the autumn it dies down and as it does so it sheds large numbers of bulbils that have formed as axillary buds and swollen to grain of rice size. If they are collected and overwintered in suitable conditions they “germinate” like seeds in the spring and grow into new plants. Suitable conditions for their survival would include the leaf litter you’d typically have in the woodland type conditions that the species enjoys growing in. Whether the plant itself survives or it grows anew from the bulbils I have never managed to determine.
What I have managed to determine is that plants grown from bulbils under protection will start into growth much earlier than in the open, producing decent sized plants that can be planted out in early summer and be way ahead of the ones left outdoors. I think I am coming round to the view that this is the best way with all of them, to overwinter them under cover then plant them out for the summer. The overwintered plants could be bulbils, small plants from summer cuttings or whole plants dug up and potted.
What this approach does is to open up the field to some of the species and varieties that are not claimed to be hardy. For the last two summers I have planted Begonia luxurians out in the ground. This fabulously architectural plant has absolutely thrived on this treatment though it is killed completely by the first significant frost. It is very easy from cuttings and small plants are easily overwintered to start the cycle again. My next candidate will be the lovely spotty leafed, cane stemmed Begonia we have had growing in the conservatory for several years. I need to get some cuttings going as soon as possible so that I have young plants in the spring.
Our local garden centre produces large quantities of bedding plants each year, growing itself Pelargoniums, Petunias, Calibrachoas, Nemesias and the like. It buys them as plugs from a large plug plant producer based in Cornwall, Kernock Park Plants, and pots them up in 1litre pots.
Amongst the range are quite a few Begonias. Not the big blousy tuberous types, nor the seed raised semperflorens types, but a range of plants that sell in a 1 litre pot at perhaps £3.50 and that get bought in ones and twos to plant in containers. ‘Ebony and Orange’ was one we purchased last year. We have it growing in the conservatory next to ‘Glowing Embers’, which may have come from the same place.
Then there are the tuberous varieties, garish in park beds but a great splash of strong colour used sparingly around the garden. Whites and dark reds sidestep the garishness and I have a soft spot for pendulous forms.
I picked up one called ‘Tie Dye’ at a Rosemoor sale last year which has done very well, I have cuttings on the go with a view to planting them outside next year. ‘Garden Angel Blush’ was sold me as hardy but didn’t like being outside last winter, I lifted it and have been nursing it back to health in a pot. Begonia sikkimensis fared similarly, it survived isn’t looking bad now but has taken all year to recover. A plant of it I have in a pot has been much happier. It has jaggedly deep cut palmate leaves with silvery markings and may get around to producing white flowers.
The conditions required in the garden are the same as for other woodlanders, friable, organic rich soil that doesn’t get too dry. A layer of leaves will help provide winter protection but it seems to me that like Dahlias, they need quite a bit of warmth to grow away, so tend to be late starters in the garden. Slugs can also be a problem.
To summarise then, a diverse group of plants with garden potential in various ways. Good foliage, long flowering season, rich colours, comparatively trouble free. I will be slowly increasing the range I use in the garden, of that I am sure.