The summer of 2012 has become the summer of the begonia. These hardy plants have supplanted impatiens as the go-to bedding plant for sunny as well as shady areas.
Drought, hot temperatures and a horrific case of downy mildew have left impatiens stunted and diseased ridden, but wax begonias (begonia semperflorens) have remained fresh and profusely blooming.
Begonias are a popular choice for both indoor and outdoor gardening. They can bring a stunning variety of leaf forms to container gardening, and depending on the type of begonia, the blossom can bring a pop of form and color.
The website of the American Begonia Society lists more than 1,500 named species and several thousand hybrids in the genus of Begonias. The most familiar of these is the wax begonia, a tender perennial winter hardy to USDA Zone 11. Because of its tolerance to heat, humidity, irregular watering and both sun and partial shade, it is well suited to use massed in outdoor bedding areas or containers.
Wax begonias grow in a compact bushy form. The fleshy stems of the plant have waxy leaves that vary in color from dark green to bronze green and have clusters of single or double flowers in pink, white, red, orange and yellow. The wax begonias in this area have flowered continuously since late May and can continue blooming into late September. Individual plants vary in height from 6 to 12 inches.
Gardeners who love the appeal of foliage that has a variety of forms and colors should explore the world of begonias beyond the wax begonia. The Cane types (your grandmother called them Angel Wings) grow on straight tough stems and have large pointed leaves with silver splashes and serrated leaves. Their flowers grow as clustered pendants and can bloom throughout the year. Cane types are grown indoors in all but the most southern states.
Another kind of begonia grown primarily for the beauty of its foliage is the rhizomatous begonia. The leaves of the rhizomatous begonia come in a variety of sizes and shapes and are particularly lovely due to the intricate patterns “painted” across the surface of this variety’s leaves. Rhizomatous begonias are best suited to indoor container gardening in our area.
The show stopper of the rhizomatous begonia group is the Rex begonia. The foliage of the Rex begonia can make a gardener swoon — the seemingly infinite variety of color, pattern, texture and shape combined with the swirls and ripples of the patterns on the leaves defy any need for blooms. Rex begonias are wonderful indoor plants, but they can be used outdoors in the summer in containers planted away from direct sunlight.
A type of begonia familiar to gardeners who love hanging baskets is the tuberous begonia. Tuberous begonias are grown for their flowers, which vary in size from 1 inch across to large showy plate-size blooms. The tuberous begonia’s flowers come in single and double bloom varieties in almost any color your can imagine. Some varieties are even scented.
There are thousands of begonias to satisfy any gardener’s desire for hardiness or spectacular beauty. To learn more about begonias from the experts in the field, you can attend two special events in our area:
On Saturday, July 28, Johanna Zinn, a representative of the Potomac Branch of the American Begonia Society, will give a class at Green Spring Garden Park in Annandale. The class will be an introduction to the many varieties of begonia and how to successfully root and grow begonias. Participants will be able to take home their “starter” begonias. You can register for this class at Park Takes.
A bit later in the summer, on Aug. 25 and 26, the American Begonia Society is having its 29th Annual Begonia Show and Sale. This annual show will feature a huge variety of begonias, as well as begonia aficionados to provide advice. This event is free; you can get detailed information by calling Green Spring Gardens at 703-642-5173.
Eleni Silverman is a Master Gardener, Vice President of the Belle Haven Garden Club, Chair of the Landscape Committee at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and author of the garden blog "Belle Haven Garden Maven." She admits to a fascination with all things gardening, believes even compost is engaging, and will eagerly discuss the relative merits of leaf mold versus hardwood mulch.