Bounteous Begonias

Old-Fashioned Begonias are a Modern Gardener’s Best Friend

By Kenneth Setzer

February 2020

Begonias always make me think of a stereotypical grandma’s garden — nice, but not exactly “hip.” Like most stereotypes, we sustain it at our loss. Begonias deserve a featured place in our landscaping. Their sheer variety, adaptability and ease of care make them ideal for our rough subtropical gardens.

Here are some Begonia basics for growing and appreciating this amazing genus of plants. First off, Begonia leaves are usually asymmetric. How cool is that? Symmetry is the rule in nature. Just look at ferns. Not begonias. Their flowers are also unusual — sepals and petals are often nearly impossible to distinguish, and so are collectively called tepals.

Trying to identify begonia as to variety, however, can be impossible outside a botany laboratory. Their forms vary from miniature terrarium plants to tall cane begonias, with leaves from shiny solid green to pebbled silver and black. There’s just indescribable variety.

Horticulturists place them into eight groups. Briefly, these include Rex, a group grown for its variety and foliage. Rex begonias all grow from rhizomes (root stalks), as does another: the Rhizomatous group.

Tuberous begonias can go dormant to survive cooler temps and are known for grander flowers. Semperflorens are “wax” begonias with thick, waxy foliage. Cane begonias grow tall bamboo-like stems. Angel wing begonias are one example. Shrub begonias grow, well, “shrubby” with multiple stems reaching out from the soil. Trailing begonias climb philodendron-like or hang from pots. Thick-stemmed begonias have, predictably, thick stems.

Wax Begonias

Begonias are native to both the Old and New World tropics and even those from different continents can be interbred, a factor in the thousands of varieties and hybrids available. Most prefer heat and humidity, though if potted, can rot from overwatering.

Some make great landscaping cover, like Begonia popenoei, with gigantic, smooth green leaves a few feet off the ground. It is demure enough to be filler between taller plants and trees while fantastic enough to be a focus with spikes of small white flowers. This one likes plenty of organic matter in the soil and tolerates South Florida sun.

From Mexico and Central America comes Begonia nelumbiifolia, the lily pad begonia, a rhizomatous species with peltate (stem connects to leaf from underneath) leaves that look like lotus. At a foot or two tall, they look at home accenting garden corners.

Lily Pad Begonia

A final reason to love Begonias is propagation. They can be grown from leaf cuttings placed into water, damp perlite or sphagnum moss. After roots and some new foliage appears, the cutting can be transferred to a pot. Just keep it humid (but not damp) until established. Begonias even put out roots from parts of leaves cut into pieces!

Explore the nearly 25 Begonia varieties at Fairchild and check out the American Begonia Society at

Angel Wing Begonia