2016 is the Year of the Begonia

With over 1,700 different species, Begonias (family Begoniaceae) is the fifth most diverse class of plants.  Begonias are often found wild from South and Central America to India. It is impossible to know exactly where they originated, but stories of plants matching their description date back to 14th century China.

Begonias officially got their name in 1690 when a French botanist, Charles Plumier, named them after a fellow French botanist, Michel Bégon.

Production
Many types of begonias are produced from cuttings because seed production can be challenging. Begonia seed is barely larger than dust particles, so it is incredibly difficult to work with. In 1873, Benary, a developer and breeder, introduced Magnifica, the first tuberous begonia from seed but it did not branch well so they were not easy to produce. In 1909, Benary introduced the world’s first heterosis (F1-hybrid) ornamental begonia, Begonia semperflorens ‘Prima Donna’ bred by Gustav Besoke.  A F1-hybrid is the selective breeding of a plant by cross pollinating two different parent plants. The introduction of F1 hybrid begonias revolutionized the horticulture industry by allowing growers to produce begonias reliably on a commercial scale.

Types/Classes
Since then many types of begonias have been commercially produced. Here are the major classes that you will see in North American garden retailers:

  • Begonia semperflorens-cultorum or “wax begonias “ are the most common. Plants are small (8-12”) mounds with rounded leaves and blooms. Flowers range from white to scarlet red.
  • Begonia tuberosa (tuberous begonias) typically have large flowers in a broad color range. Flowers can be huge and double. Since the plants are monoecious, there are always both single (male) and double (female) flowers on the same plant. The leaves are usually asymmetrical, hairy or fuzzy and have a serrated edge.   
  • Begonia boliviensis is more heat tolerant than other types.  The plant branches cascade down in hanging baskets or window boxes. The leaves are similar in shape to tuberous begonias but are narrower and smooth. The flower has long, strap-like petals forming a soft trumpet.
  • Begonia hiemalis, also called elatior or Reiger begonia, typically have small to medium double flowers in a wide range of colors. These are often sold around the holidays.
  • Begonia masoniana has bold color patterns on leaves that are textured with puckers and appear coarse.
  • Begonia rhizomatous has thick, fleshy stems with large, colorful leaves. The leaves can be round or heavily lobed like a grape leaf. Some have small white flowers in the spring, and a few varieties bloom all summer. 
  • Begonia rex are grown for their beautiful leaves, which are quite hairy or fuzzy and usually covered with multicolored, intricate swirled designs.
  • Begonia hybrida is used by plant breeders to show that a variety is a cross between two different classes.

Breeding
In 1972, Nonstop Begonias became the first F1 hybrid tuberous begonia series from seed that featured a uniform, compact habit, huge double flowers in lots of bright colors. After more than 30 years of improvements, Nonstop Begonias are still the best selling tuberous begonia on the market!

In 1998, Pin-Up Flame won an AAS award, a large bi-colored single flowered tuberosa begonia.  Another exciting introduction was the Big (Begonia benariensis) and Whopper Begonia series.  These begonias provide an amazing show of color all season, yet they are super easy to grow. They thrive in both sun and shade, take little fertilization and only require about an inch of water per week. This allows them to be used in non-irrigated landscapes in much of the US.  

What's New
With all the different series in Begonias, there are so many to choose from that it is often hard to decide which one to try. There are two varieties of wax or semperflorens Begonias, Monza and Havana, that are well-liked for their nonstop flowering, numerous flower colors and leaves in either green (Monza) or bronze (Havana).  Bada Bing & Bada Boom, also both wax begonias, are popular picks due to their sun tolerance and continuous blooming.

Begonia tuberosa series include the popular Fortune, a tuberous basket type that offers stunning blooms throughout the season or the Pudding series which offers large blooms with a super bushy habit.

Looking for a heat tolerant begonia that brings continuous blooms, look to the boliviensis series including Bossa Nova, a well branched plant that looks stunning in a large container or hanging basket.

Santa Cruz Sunset and Bonfire are additional favorites with their heat and drought tolerant orange-red blooms that cascade over the container.

Hiemalis or Reiger series include Rhine with its large flowers and good branching and used often at the Winter Holidays. Begonia masoniana, referred to as Iron Cross begonia is most likely found as a houseplant. It is grown for its unusual foliage of puckered, pebbly-textured bright green leaves decorative dark chocolate brown center.

Begonia rhizomatous has numerous different leaf shapes and styles.  One in particular is the Erythrophylla which is often called beef steak or pond lily because of its round leaves.

If you are looking for large-leaved plants that look like when dinosaurs walked the earth, check out Jurassic-Rex Begonias for their bold colors and patterns.  Gryphon and Pegasus, more Rex hybrids, are perfect for adding color and texture leaves to any container. The T-Rex series is another Rex hybrid that can be grown in cooler temperatures.

Begonia Hybrida are admired for their high quality and maintenance free plants.  Two series that hold up through the season with continuous blooms include DragonWing and BabyWings. For those looking for dark, cocoa-brown foliage, the varieties included in the Cocoa Collection is a good place to start. 

Growing Requirements
Due to the seed size and environmental requirements for germination, today’s begonias are usually grown by a professional grower in a greenhouse and sold as a small plant. Ounce for ounce, begonia seeds are more expensive than gold so special care must be taken with every seed.

If you would like more information, there are several sources for tips on growing begonias.

Here are just a few:

Cornell University Begonia Growing Guide 
 
University of Vermont Begonias To Brighten Shade

Clemson Extension Growing Begonias Indoors

White Flower Farm Growing Tuberous Begonias

No matter which type of begonia you choose, these plants are sure to bring beauty and interest to your garden.

 

The National Garden Bureau recognizes and thanks Jen Calhoun from Ernst Benary of America as author and contributor to this fact sheet.

From the National Garden Bureau