Begonias

Begonia flowers

A closer look at the flowers on a wax begonia

Begonias are a commonly used bedding plant that can provide striking color in the landscape throughout the year. The begonia family contains more than 1,300 species and hybrids, many of which are commonly grown as potted foliage plants.

Begonias that do best in the landscape generally fall into three groups: wax begonias, cane or angel-wing begonias, and rhizomatous begonias. Other types like tuberous, Rex, and Rieger begonias prefer cool temperatures and do not usually make reliable landscape plants in Florida, but you can always try them as houseplants.

Wax Begonias

In the landscape, wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens) are most popular, with flowers that keep their rich color, even during the summer. While considered annuals, they can often survive in the landscape for several years. There are numerous single- and double-flowered varieties in shades of red, pink, and white, with either bronze or green foliage. Popular and reliable, wax begonia thrive in sun or shade and perform well in landscape beds or containers. They are tender to the cold, so should be planted in the spring, after the danger of frost has passed.

A cane begonia with large dark green pointed leaves and drooping sprays of salmon-pink flowers

A cane begonia with pink flowers in the butterfly garden at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Cane Begonias

Cane begonias have stiff, upright stems that give them their common name, and produce clusters of dangling flowers in shades of red, orange, pink, or white year-round. Leaves are spotted, banded, or splotched with color, and wing shaped, giving them the once-common name angel wing begonias.

Landscape favorites include ‘Torch’ (red flowers) and ‘Alba’ (ever-blooming white). ‘Sophie Cecile’ is a reluctant bloomer, but its robust, five-foot foliage makes it a landscape standout. For South Florida gardeners these plants provide year-round interest; however, in North Florida they usually die to the ground during the winter.

Rhizomatous Begonias

Rhizomatous begonias have thick rhizomes, a type of stem that grows along the ground or only somewhat upright. The flowers of the best landscape types are held on stems above the foliage in late winter and spring. This type does best in South and Central Florida; North Florida gardeners get to see the fantastic blooms only if they grow these plants in containers or very protected areas. Common types are the ‘Star Begonia’ (Begonia heracleifolia), hybrids such as ‘Beefsteak’ and ‘Joe Hayden’, B. nelumbifolia (the “Water Lily Begonia”), and ‘Passing Storm’, which is grown mostly for its beautiful lavender foliage. Some rhizomatous begonias have leaves up to two feet in diameter and make wonderful substitutes for hostas in the landscape. Rex begonias are rhizomatous, and are grown for their colorful leaves instead of their flowers. However, because of foliage problems and a preference for cooler climates these are often better houseplants than landscape plants. If you’re up for a challenge you can give them a try.

Planting and Care

Begonias can be used in mass plantings, or they can be mixed with other annuals. Plant them as soon as possible after purchase. These easy-to-grow plants prefer warm temperatures, humidity, and moist, well-drained soil. When choosing a spot for a landscape begonia, look for an area that receives several hours of morning sun; many begonias can tolerate more sunlight if they are kept moist but not too wet. Well-drained soil is particularly important as begonias will rot if they are overwatered or planted in an area that stays wet.

Your plants should be fertilized several times a year with a controlled-release fertilizer for best results. If your begonia gets leggy, don’t be afraid to cut it back. An occasional light pruning will also stimulate new growth and more flowers.

These tropical plants can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 8b to 11. If you live in a cooler part of the state, be sure to protect your outdoor begonias from frost. They can also thrive indoors.

Propagation

Begonias are easily propagated at home. There are three types of begonia propagation: stem cuttings, leaf cuttings, and division. Stem cuttings are very simple. A stem cutting should be two to four inches in length and come from a healthy plant. You can root these cuttings in perlite, potting soil, or any other sterile media. Some begonias will also start from leaf cuttings. The only requirement is that the leaf portion contains a main vein. With both stem and leaf cuttings, you should keep them in a cool, humid environment until they root. You can also divide some varieties of begonia by simply separating the stems. Take each section and plant them in clean potting media.

New Cultivars

Breeders are producing wonderful new cultivars of begonias, many of which are interspecific hybrids of the ones discussed above. These tend to be very vigorous with larger leaves and bigger blooms. Examples include the “BIG”® series which resemble wax begonias on steroids and Dragon Wing™, a cane-type that’s sterile so more energy is diverted to flowers instead of seeds. For more information, visit the American Begonia Society’s website and consider visiting one of the state’s Begonia Society meetings to see what a fantastic array of begonias you can grow in Florida.

Angel wing begonia with pink flowers and variegated foliage

This angel wing begonia sports lovely pink flowers and variegated foliage. ©Sydney Park Brown. All rights reserved.

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