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Understanding Habitat Origins for Houseplant Happiness: Begonias

Articles: Understanding Habitat Origins for Houseplant Happiness: Begonias

Winter 2024 

As I sat down to write this first article in a new series about houseplants, I was immediately distracted by a struggling begonia I was attempting to nurse back to its once glorious vigor. I’d acquired the plant at a sale hosted by the Sacramento Begonia Society. It was a rare cultivar named after Brad Thompson (Begonia ‘Brad Thompson’), an esteemed begonia hybridizer and prominent member of the American Begonia Society until his death in 2018. After a recent repotting, the begonia reacted, to my great dismay, by dropping most of its gorgeous black, velvety leaves. Assuming that it wanted more warmth and humidity, I placed the plant inside a large glass vessel I’d layered with moistened sphagnum moss and lightweight expanded clay aggregate (LECA), a soilless growing medium.

I was confident that this veritable “plant spa” I created would revive the begonia. I was wrong. The remaining foliage had dwindled to mush, leaving one tiny new leaf emerging. More moisture was not the medicine this plant needed to recover, and it was telling me so. I promptly removed the plant from the glass container and moved it to a sunnier spot in my house to let it dry out. Will the plant forgive me? Only time will tell. Am I discouraged from growing begonias? Absolutely not. Hits and misses are both part of the gardener’s journey. Besides, I have so much more to learn about this plant genus that I adore.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, I went from having only a couple of houseplants to having well over 100, including Begonia, Hoya, Philodendron, Peperomia, and Rhipsalis. Caring for indoor plants and creating an interior garden became a respite from fear; a cutting that rooted in water, my beacon of hope. I certainly wasn’t alone. Indoor gardening went globally viral as a result of everyone spending more time in their homes. This is when I discovered plant swaps, “porch pickups,” and social media groups devoted entirely to identifying, trading, and caring for plants. COVID forced us to mask up, but it couldn’t stop us plant people from connecting. Online comment fields and direct messaging became our lifelines to acquiring new plants to fill our homes, feed our souls, and put us at ease. If we were climbing the walls having to stay indoors, why not cover those walls with climbing plants?

Marvin Baker with a selection of his prized begonias. Credit: Marvin Baker
Rita Nordby with a Begonia ‘Freddie’ in bloom at the Gardens of Lake Merritt, Vireya house. Credit: Rita Nordby

According to the American Begonia Society, there are “over 2,050 different species and thousands of cultivars,” making it particularly appealing to begonia collectors (like me) and plant breeders around the world.

For those unfamiliar with this genus, begonias usually have soft, succulent stems and showy flowers and foliage. The leaves are often large and asymmetric, and many have distinct markings or variegation.

While horticulturists generally classify begonias into three main categories (tuberous, rhizomatous, fibrous-rooted), the American Begonia Society has expanded on their classification. The society’s system includes the following forms: cane, shrub-like, tuberous, rhizomatous, trailing-scandent, thick-stemmed, as well as the species-specific ever-blooming (B. semperflorens) and rex cultorum (B. rex). It’s important to note that cultural requirements vary across these different begonia groups.

Growth habits between these categories vary widely. Cane begonias form tough, bamboo-like canes. Tuberous begonias have adapted to cool mountain habitats such as the Andes Mountains of Peru and are best known for showy flowers and a range of sizes. Most rhizomatous begonias originate from Brazil and Mexico and show a wide diversity of foliage and form from smooth to hairy to colorfully patterned. Rex cultorum, with its striking foliage, is a group of rhizomatous begonias developed in England from the painted-leaf begonia (Begonia rex) of India. Ever-blooming begonias, also known as wax or fibrous-rooted begonias, are a popular bedding plant for smooth leaves and abundant flowers and include many colorful varieties such as angel wings (B. ‘Angel Wing’).

An angel wing Begonia variety in the greenhouse at Filoli in Woodside, CA. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Thanks to the temperate climate of Oakland, I have successfully grown begonias in containers outdoors. But because of my growing interest in houseplants, I have moved most of them indoors where I can better enjoy them up close and protect their stunning, delicate foliage from the constant pelting of redwood duff in our backyard. Bringing the plants inside also presented an opportunity to contemplate their native habitat so I could take better care of them. Where did the plants come from? What is the soil, sunlight, and moisture like in that environment, and how can I best mimic these optimal growing conditions? For instance, begonias are indigenous to the world’s tropical and sub-tropical regions, so they require warm temperatures. Think Central and South America, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, where they grow as understory plants in the bright shade and consistent moisture of cool, moist forests and tropical rainforests.

Keeping origin stories like this in mind is key to being a better plant parent. Begonia societies and social media platforms like Instagram are a wellspring of inspiration and information for the begonia grower, novice or experienced.

“I absolutely encourage people to do research on the type of begonia they are purchasing,” said Kristin, 32, who goes by @begoniasarawak on Instagram. She prefers to keep her collection “manageable,” around 30 species, most of which she grows in terrariums and are native to Malaysia, 

Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, and India, with some from South America and Madagascar. She also carefully documents habitat, distribution, section, type, what year the species was discovered, and a link to an article if one is available.

“In doing this, you can group your care,” she explained. “If five of your plants are from Borneo, then you know they will like moist conditions, extremely high humidity, not-too-hot temperatures, and medium to low light because that’s what they receive in the wild. If five of your plants are from Mexico, then you know they prefer drier substrates (probably sand), don’t mind hot temperatures, and are OK with lower humidity. In my opinion, this is 75 percent of the battle with terrarium plants. Once you know how to provide the plant as close to their natural environment as possible, the rest is easy.”

Rita Nordby, 67, joined the San Francisco and the Sacramento branches of the American Begonia Society within days of retiring from the financial industry five years ago. “Since then, my knowledge has grown exponentially and I am so happy to share and keep learning about this extraordinary genus.”

Unidentified Begonia rex. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon
Begonia ‘Peter Piper.’ Credit: Rita Nordby

Nordby is often asked about begonia care. “The question is usually preceded by ‘Why did my begonia die?’” she said. “The questions revolve around too much water, too much sun, not enough humidity, wrong soil type, too big a pot, unstable conditions, no fertilizer or too much fertilizer.”

Nordby explained that origin is an important guide for growing species begonias in particular. “This cannot be dismissed when deciding how to grow your plant with success and is a clue to humidity, watering requirements, mineral requirements, medium requirements,” she said. “Hybrids are bred to withstand the challenge of different climates and conditions for commercial distribution. But it is also helpful to understand where the hybrid was developed.”

A noted speaker and avid begonia collector who propagated her first begonia by leaf cutting at age 17, Nordby has over 100 begonias “in addition to many babies in various stages of propagation,” she said. “The collection is about 50/50 and consists of canes, rhizomatous and tuberous. I have a glass house, use fans, a fogger for humidity, seed mats and a heater in the winter. I have a challenge with the colder winters and warm summers of the East Bay near Mt. Diablo. My next goal is finding some success with rexes.”

Divide and multiply. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon
Begonia cuttings to share. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Marvin Baker—passionate collector, San Francisco Begonia Society member, and speaker—has been growing begonias since childhood. “My grandmother would always give me cuttings to root in water,” said Baker, 59. “She had several huge, cane-type begonias on a large, window-adjacent table in her living room. I recall the beautiful leaves and blooms.”

He lives in Fresno, California, and grows “well over 100” varieties in his garden and around 20 indoors. They include hybrids and species, some endangered. He has a mix of cane-like (including thick-stemmed), rhizomatous, and shrub-like begonias. He also has a few tuberous varieties and a rex, but the climate of his garden is “too warm and dry to keep them happy.”

Begonia goldingiana. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon
Begonia x albopicta in bloom. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Like Nordby, Baker is often asked about what he calls a begonia loss. “Most growers want to figure out what the missteps may have been that led their beautiful begonia to its demise,” he said. “That’s always a fun question to try to answer. One has to take a basic scientific approach and conduct a plant autopsy.”

Education is power when it comes to preventing plant loss, Baker said. “The more one can learn about the climate of the endemic area of a given species, the better your chances of replicating similar light, humidity, and substrate. Once I find where a species originates, I do all I can to learn about that particular microclimate in an effort to provide comparable growing conditions.”

Baker shared an example of his care process for each begonia he acquires. He received a juvenile B. froebelii species that is currently endangered in its natural habitat. “Although I’m delighted to have this endangered begonia species, I’m also nervous because this begonia must survive so I can propagate it or create seeds that can be shared.”

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This begonia is endemic to five specific regions in Ecuador and has grown between elevations of 4,000 and 5,000 feet, according to the International Database of Begoniaceae. While researching the climate of the area where this begonia is endemic—its home—he learned several critical conditions the plant needed to be healthy and thrive. For one, it prefers low light, “like what one would find outside under a canopy of trees.” B. froebelii thrives in dim, “terrarium” conditions with relative humidity around 80 percent and higher.

“I searched the climate of these particular regions for annual rain, temperature highs and lows, and humidity levels. [Then] I recreated those conditions in a simple terrarium made of two large, clear plastic bowls from the dollar store,” Baker said. “I created a substrate that is light and airy because these [begonias] often grow on loose bark with very rich, organic substrate. It contained some small bark, chopped sphagnum moss, medium perlite, a little charcoal, and a rich indoor plant soil.”

As of late November, in addition to growing the juvenile plant, he was propagating two leaves from this plant in perlite.

For those who want to grow begonias but lack the ideal conditions to grow them, Kristin suggests giving terrariums a go. She has successfully grown most of her begonia species this way. Kristin launched a namesake Instagram account in 2021 after being “mesmerized” by a reel featuring Begonia sp. Sarawak, an unidentified species native to Borneo bearing foliage with a bluish shimmer. “Seeing that video was the start of my begonia cultivation. Begonia sp. Sarawak was my first begonia, first terrarium plant, first rare plant, and first plant ordered online—so many firsts!

Begonia sp. Sarawak. Credit: @plantybythebay
Begonia erythrophylla, rooted in sphagnum moss. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

“If I can start my begonia journey with one of the most notoriously difficult terrarium begonia, then you can too,” she said. “Terrarium begonia are actually fairly easy to cultivate in terms of their environment because you control everything. If you live in an arid climate, you can use a closed container to maintain high humidity. If you live in a cold climate, you can use a heating mat to maintain temperature. If you live in a dark apartment, you can use grow lights to maintain adequate lighting.”

Nordby encourages exploring other begonia varieties if terrarium-growing isn’t a viable option. “Cane begonias also require less humidity and can be easier to grow if one is having issues with other growing types.”

Rachel Kessler, 42, who goes by @blurrybegonia on Instagram, lives in Portland where she grows 30–40 varieties of begonias. She said the begonia bug first bit when a friend from the Bay Area sent her a trailing hybrid called ‘Withlacoochee’. Replicating humidity is easy, said Kessler, who grows begonias in second-hand glass vessels like candy dishes and fish bowls.

“Making small biomes in order to replicate begonias’ native conditions works best,” she said. “Chunky substrate creates drainage while moss retains moisture. Some types, like beefsteak (B. erythrophylla), have been grown indoors for so long historically that they can live happily in open conditions. Others require truly indirect, dappled light and higher humidity.”

A greenhouse full of begonias at Filoli in Woodside, CA. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon
Begonia 'Little Brother Montgomery'. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Kessler reflected on the multiple benefits of growing begonias under glass. It’s a way to optimize plant health, satisfy her penchant for experimentation, and is simply a beautiful way to display plants. “As a painter, I love color and texture. Begonias provide a lot of inspiration for looking closely.”

(As someone who also grows begonias in terrariums, I’ve discovered yet another benefit. You don’t have to worry about watering them when you go on a trip. With just a little care and attention, the little environments you create can be self-sustaining.)

Kristin said her Instagram followers most often ask about the specific growing environment she creates for her begonias and other terrarium plants. “Cultivating plants, especially terrarium begonia, is such a personal experience,” she said. “What may work for some does not necessarily work for others. For this reason, one of my favorite ways to cultivate my plants is to use them in experiments. I experiment with different substrates, different environments and different propagation techniques. By experimenting with your plants, you can hone in on what works for you, your environment and your personal care habits. I provide general advice, but I always recommend [doing] what works best for you.”

Care tips

Research the origin of your plant. Understanding your begonia’s natural habitat is key to successful care.

Tailor your care routine to your specific plants. Not all begonias are the same. They may have different needs and care requirements.

If you have several begonias that originated from a variety of native habitats, group their care accordingly.

Use terrariums, especially if you need to control microclimate: humidity, temperature, lighting. Be sure to ventilate by occasionally opening lids.

Use a well-drained growing medium that is neither constantly wet nor allowed to dry out completely.

Feel free to experiment. Most begonias can be propagated by division, stem cuttings, leaf cuttings or seed.

Don’t be discouraged by setbacks or failures. Hits and misses are part of the process.

Resist the temptation to simply place plants wherever they look nice rather than where they need to be to thrive. Houseplants are not decor.

Connect with experienced plant enthusiasts and experts, either through social media or local plant societies.

Remember Rita Nordby’s motto: “If your begonia is doing well, don’t change a thing!”

Beginner begonias

Begonia erythrophylla. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Beefsteak begonia (Begonia erythrophylla) A rhizomatous hybrid created in 1845 in Germany. Shiny oval leaves are dark olive green on top, red underneath. Ease of care makes them a great selection for begonia first-timers.

Begonia 'Irene Nuss'. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Irene Nuss begonia (B. ‘Irene Nuss’) Classic, upright cane variety. Large bronze-green foliage with large clusters of pink flowers. Awarded the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

Begonia 'King Tut'. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

King Tut begonia (B. ‘King Tut’) Low-growing, rhizomatous variety with compact form. Lime-green, lobed leaves with distinct black margins. Profusion of pink flowers come bloom time.

This Article was Sponsored by:

Resources

See the permanent collection of begonias planted and maintained by the San Francisco Begonia Society at The Gardens at Lake Merritt, in the Vireya Tropical Rhododendron Garden.

American Begonia Society

Begonia Wiki

ICUN Red List of Threatened Species

International Database of Begoniaceae (IDB)

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