Down to earth — begonias think spring

Originally published March 18, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers. 

I hope by the time you read this we can see our gardens again. I’m dying to get to work outside. If this were a normal March the hellebores would be blooming and I can see from my window that the witch hazel has unfurled its flowers again. But as I write this the snow bank that swallowed it is no less than knee high and I still look like Frankenstein tromping out to the bird feeder. I don’t trust that winter is over yet despite some thawing and a calendar that declared spring last Friday. (It snowed that day.) I was punished for my haste last year. Never again. (She says.) I’m sure I should at least wait until I can walk through my garden with a normal amount of poise and grace before I take loppers to the roses. So, like all of you, I’m going stir crazy. Thank goodness my begonias are in bloom.

Of over 1500 species of begonia in the world (mostly from the tropics) only a fraction of a fraction are cultivated for our gardens and windowsills. I have far fewer than that and even fewer than I used to. For a long time my living room was dominated by a gangly silver polka-dotted angel wing begonia (B. maculata var. wightii). Angel wing or cane begonias have sturdy stems between pointed asymmetrical leaves and seem to want to be twelve-feet tall. Supposedly they can be pinched back to encourage compactness but mine was never satisfied unless it was reaching for the ceiling and arching like a vulture over the couch. I loved its patterning and profusion of white flowers but when it finally toppled to the floor I said my goodbyes.

Begonia 'Midnight Twist'
Begonia ‘Midnight Twist’

Most of my remaining begonias are rhizomatous types that grow in low mounds from a gnarly tangle of ground covering stems and bloom with winter-blues-busting exuberance. ‘Midnight Twist’ is a Gothic beauty with ruffled leaves as close to black as burgundy can get and sprays of bubblegum pink clamshell buds that fade to nearly white after opening. My other favorite has tiny green leaves with red freckles and eyelashes all along their edges, white flowers the size of baby fingernails, and grows with the kind of generosity that keeps me at my potting bench.

I have one Rex begonia. Sort of. It’s barely surviving with half of a leaf and the start of another. Rex begonias have rhizomatous parentage on one side but have been bred for who-needs-flowers? sort of foliage with Tim Burton-esque curlicues and/or silver, pink, red, burgundy, and green zones, splashes, and/or peach fuzz. They are extra persnickety and wear their hearts on their sleeves. For example, my Rex’s disappointment about low indoor humidity has been displayed for months in necrotic brown spots, leaf drop, and death throes.

As a rule begonias want indirect light and to be watered only after the soil has had a chance to dry out and just before they start to wilt. Heaven forfend you ever leave them sitting in the overflow. Even though a few of my eyelash begonias thrive in terrariums it never occurred to me until I did the research for this that begonias need a lot more moisture in the air than they can tolerate at their feet. With any luck, my woe-begotten Rex will make a dramatic comeback now that it sits above a pan filled with water that will raise humidity levels as it evaporates, and enough pebbles to keep the pot high and dry.

I have all but forgotten about the tuberous begonias in my collection. They do their blooming in the summer and spend the winter completely dormant in the dark down cellar. But they too, in their own way, will help pull me through the last stretch of winter because I should start checking now for new shoots that will want the light of day and a drenching to get growing again. This year they might know it’s spring before the rest of us do.

I’m happy to report that in the time since I wrote this, the snow has melted from most of the garden. I can get to the feeder without lurching and the witch hazel is only ankle deep in the stuff now. Huzzah!

What is helping you through the (lack of) transition to spring?

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