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Begonia X L. 1753
pronounced: beg-OWN-yuh hybrid
(Begoniaceae – the begonia family)
common name: Begonia
Begonia was named for Micheal Bégon. When King Louis XIV of France founded the 17th century ‘new town’ arsenal of Rochefort, he determined to make it the most beautiful arsenal in the world. Bégon was put in charge of the creation of the city and its harbour. Seeking exotic plants, he wrote to collectors and scientists of the entire world, especially the French colonies of the West Indies and French islands of the Americas, where he had served as a diplomat in 1682. He also sent two scientists, the Franciscan friar Charles Plumier and Josephe Donat Surian, a physician, to the French Antilles (Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti) in 1689 and 1690 to study the local flora. In 1689 Father Plumier described a little plant which he named Begonia rosea flore, folio orbiculate†. Rochefort still honours Bégon and the flower named after him at the Conservatory of Begonia, which houses the largest Begonia collection in Europe.
Begonias are widespread, occurring naturally in the tropics and sub-tropics of both hemispheres. They are more common on the continents than in the Pacific Islands. The species includes shrubs and low herbaceous plants (sometimes climbing). Most are perennial, and the roots can be bulbous (see photograph of the base of Cane Begonia), rhizomes, tubers, or fibrous. The leaves vary greatly in shape, size and colour, and are usually alternate along the stem. The flowers are usually white, pink, red, orange or yellow, and normally occur in axillary cymes. The male flowers have 2 – 4 sepals and 0 – 2 petals, and the female have 2 – 5 equal tepals. The fruit is a capsule, or, very occasionally, berry-like.
Begonias are usually divided into 8 different and distinct types, each with varying pattern, colours, root systems, stems, foliage and flower formations. The entire genus shares a few common characteristics, such as the production of male and female flowers on single plants (monoecious), and small winged fruit.
• Thick-stemmed Begonias: with thick, woody stems, reaching 2.5 m or more in height. New growth begins at the base of the plant, rather than branching out from higher parts of the stem. They also drop their lower leaves, leaving the stem easily visible. These are not as commonly grown as the others, but can be attractive, and make quite good house plants.
• Trailing Begonias: also known as scandent Begonias, are climbers that will scale trees, fences or cliffs with ease. They have large glossy leaves, and produce an impressive array of flowers. The flowers are either pink or white, and some newer cultivars are ever-blooming. They are often grown in hanging baskets.
• Rex Begonias: prized for their foliage rather than their flowers – the flowers are small and unspectacular. The leaves vary in size, shape, pattern and colour. These are much harder to grow than the other types, as they are very fussy about temperature and humidity.
• Tuberous Begonias: hybrids from South America. A wide variety of flower sizes (1 – 18 cm), in every colour imaginable except blue. They are grown with the emphasis on producing the largest possible, and most colourful, flowers. As you would expect, they grow from tubers.
• Rhizomatous Begonias: attractive displays of both foliage and flowers – leaves can be up to 90 cm in length. The rhizome produces shoots above ground and roots below. Most varieties only bloom in the spring, but some bloom all the year round. Although they produce many flowers, they are mainly grown for the attractive foliage.
• Shrub Begonias: widely varied, and can grow up to about 350 cm in height. The foliage is green, but can have a felted, glossy or smooth texture. Shrub Begonias have multiple stems and thick foliage. The flowers are white, pink or red. Shrub Begonias are mainly grown for their size, low maintenance and the thickness of their foliage.
• Semperfloren Begonias: These are the most commonly grown, and are often called Wax Begonias, due to the waxy appearance of their leaves. They are ever-blooming perennials, and flowers are red, white or pink, and may be single or double. The foliage can be brown, bronze, white or green.
• Cane Begonias: generally upright-growing, with smooth bamboo-like stems and swollen nodes: the distance between nodes varies considerably. New growth comes mainly from the base of the plant, generally in spring or summer, and may need staking on taller plants. The older growth can be pruned off when it looks untidy and does not flower. The canes can grow from 25 cm in some of the low-growing varieties to over 4 m in the taller ones. There is a wide variety of leaf shapes and colours: some have white spots; other have almost black leaves with red on the underside. The flowers usually hang in bunches from nodes near the top of the plant. These plants like a lightly shaded area and a little morning sun. The key to their light requirements is usually determined by the colour of their leaves – the darker the leaf, the more shade they like. They are often called Tree Begonias, or Angel Wing Begonias.
There are over 1,200 species of Begonia. The plants of this genus hybridize easily, and even species from separate continents have been bred to produce hybrid cultivars. Almost all the begonias grown in our gardens are hybrids. Some begonias also make good greenhouse or indoor plants.
Most Begonias are easily propagated by division or by stem cuttings. Some, especially members of the rhizomatous and rex groups, can be propagated from leaf cuttings or even sections of leaves.
† Begonia with red flower and circular leaves. This was before Linnaeus had adopted the binomial system of naming plants.
Photographs takin in Picnic Bay 2010, 2011
Page last updated 23rd July 2018