Winter with its short days and long nights is a good time to concentrate on houseplants — often neglected due to the many duties the garden requires during the other three seasons.
One plant that attracts lots of attention is the begonia. A native of the tropics, begonia has been around for more than two centuries. Today, there are 1,500 species. They creep and crawl, cascade and clump.
Among the classes are fibrous (named for its tiny, hair-like roots), tuberous (roots that look like potatoes), and rhizomatous (growing from fleshy stems called rhizomes). Others you may be familiar with are the cane-like class your grandmother called angel wing that is still a favorite today and the semperflorens, a wax begonia usually grown as a bedding plant.
The most sought after are the rhizomatous begonias, which include the Rex with its dramatic foliage. There are more varieties than adjectives to describe this plant.
And while most bloom, begonias are grown for their uniquely shaped foliage and colorful patterns with splashes of bronze and silver, red-purple and green-black and sometimes, even a bit of iridescence.
Rexes’ designs include the chocolate cross display on the puckered apple green leaves of Iron Cross, the design of snail on Escargot, leaves in shades of pink and cream on Fairy Rex or the green-black leaves that transition to silver along the edges of Yamileth Rex.
Others have intriguing names such as Ballet, Pink Charming, Red Kiss, Rumba, Salsa, Silver Limbo and Tornado.
Rex begonias are actually easy to grow. Their needs include:
• Well-drained potting mix.
• Medium to bright light.
• Water when soil feels dry to the touch.
• 50 percent humidity for best results. If leaves start curling or turn brown, the reason is usually low humidity.
• Fertilizer once or twice per year, unless you want fast growth, then more often.
They are subject to some pest problems, so check occasionally for powdery mildew and spider mites and treat accordingly.
Not only are they low maintenance, but are also some of the easiest plants to propagate by rooting cuttings. No need to use soilless mix and rooting hormone; simply remove leaves with two or so inches of stem and put in small jars of water to root. It’s that easy.
Rex begonias will thrive planted in the garden or in containers outside in the summer, but must be moved inside before the temperatures drop below 40.
One of the amazing benefits of being a gardener is that the learning never ends.
I have always treated Rex begonias as houseplants. My friend Kay bought a flat of them last spring and planted hers in the garden. Before first frost, she transferred them to containers and passed along one to me. It was five times larger than those I pampered indoors all summer. Lesson learned: Rex begonias will summer in the garden this year.
Begonias are among the plants that make good companions in locations for reading and relaxing. They provide a natural solution to cleaner indoor air by removing carbon dioxide and replacing with fresh oxygen. And research has shown that plants and flowers can inspire our creativity and enhance our attitude by reducing stress — another reason for growing houseplants (as if any gardener needs justification!).
For a complete list of horticultural classifications, check out the American Begonia Society’s website (begonias.org). FYI: All begonia species are toxic to pets.
In the words of Gladys Tabor, a columnist for Ladies Home Journal magazine back in the mid-1900s, “The begonia is an amazing plant ... it just keeps going along and blooming, and when cut back, it starts up again.” What more can a gardener ask?
Next week, the topic will be: January is perfect for armchair gardening.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.