Sandy’s Garden ... Begonias

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

For the first time in I don’t know how many years, I have no overwintered tuberous begonias in my garden.

I do have bedding begonias, which look very different but are actually siblings, members of the same family. And it’s small wonder that I shall have members of the begonia family in my garden, for the begonia family is the fifth-largest angiosperm genus - the angiosperms being the large group of plants that have flowers and produce seeds enclosed within a carpel … the female reproductive organ of a flower … including herbaceous plants, shrubs, grasses, and most trees. So there are plenty of begonias to choose from.

In fact, there are roughly 1 800 different species in the genus, most of which come from the tropical regions of the world … South and Central America, Africa, and southern Asia … and so require warm temperatures if they are to thrive. The majority of the naturally-occurring species of begonia are found on the ground in forests where they spend most of the day in bright shade and are seldom exposed to the full glare of the sun. Their preference for the forest floor explains another characteristic of begonias – their liking for a well-drained growing medium that is neither constantly wet nor allowed to dry out completely. These requirements explain why some begonia species are grown as ornamental houseplants where their needs are more easily met than they are in the average garden.

The genus name Begonia … its Sunday botanical name and its common name are one and the same … was bestowed on the family by a French patron of botany, one Charles Plumier, in honour of his fellow Frenchman Michel Bégon (1638–1710) who, in the words of Wikipedia, was “known as Michel V Bégon or le Grand Bégon and was a French ancien regime official. He was intendant de la marine at the port of Rochefort and chief officer of the généralité of La Rochelle, as well as a passionate plant collector.” Plumier met Bégon in the Antilles, a group of islands located in the Caribbean Sea and comprising all of the West Indies except the Bahamas – and this was some 350 years ago, when sailing to and through the Caribbean was a risky, uncomfortable and often very unpleasant business. A century later, Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish botanist and zoologist, who formalised the modern system of naming plants, was perfectly content with Plumier’s name for the genus.

The average gardener, fortunately, does not need to concern himself or herself with the complexities of the begonia family. So far as we are concerned, we can get along very well with tuberous begonias and fibrous-rooted begonias. Tuberous begonias … begonias which grow from tubers (potato-like objects) … are a favourite of gardeners for their bright colours and long flowering season. They do well in planters and hanging baskets, though the stems are easily-damaged by strong winds. The first frost of the autumn kills the flowers; and the tubers must be lifted and stored in a frost-free location for replanting the following year.

Fibrous-rooted begonias, usually called bedding begonias …and sometimes called wax begonias because of the waxy-looking surfaces of their leaves … are actually tender perennials though they are almost always grown in Scotland as annuals. Their white, pink or red flowers appear all summer-long but … as with tuberous begonias … the first frost destroys them. As well as their plentiful, colourful flowers, bedding begonias are a boon for gardeners as one of the few bedding plants that thrive in partial shade. Still, it is important to remember that begonias originally come from the tropics and, although many hybrids have been developed to survive in less-than-tropical heat, they don’t enjoy cold, wet conditions.