January is a hard time for gardeners. Planning and ordering seeds and plants, spiffing up the garden tools and flower pots—it’s all necessary, but almost none of it involves actual plants. Sometimes you just want to touch a leaf, admire a flower. It’s for January that I grow so many houseplants.
I admit that I’m hard on houseplants. With my focus shifted to the outdoors, I tend to ignore them during the growing season. Watering is erratic—I often forget to water; our occasional house sitters usually water too much. Add in dry air, those ever-present mealy bugs, and a cat who likes to chew on leaves, and you can see that my plants have to be sturdy, determined specimens.
That’s why I grow begonias. We’re all familiar with the fibrous bedding begonias, and perhaps with the ones grown in pots from tubers, with their huge pendulous flowers, but there are many more begonias waiting to be appreciated. They’re attractive, they have flowers, and, best of all, the very fact that they’re still alive at my house tells you that they’re easy to grow.
There are around 1,500 species and ten times as many cultivars. You may find plants labeled Rex Begonia or Angel Wing Begonia, but most houseplants are simply sold as “Begonia.”
Most begonias are grown for their foliage. As you can see from the photos, leaves come in dark green, wine reds to purples, and even silver. Some are cultivars are variegated. Leaves come in almost any shape imaginable, and may be flat, ridged, or ruffled.
The flowers are quite pretty, appearing as sprays of delicate blossoms in shades of red, pink, orange, or white, suspended above the foliage on wiry stems. Yes, they eventually turn brown and fall off, making a bit of a mess, but they’re easy to sweep up. Indoor plants can bloom in any season; mine is covered with just-opening buds.
As with most houseplants, begonias prefer diffused light. They need a bit less than some other plants, but don’t hide them away in a dark corner. If they don’t cast a shadow, it’s much too dark. Direct sunlight will quickly burn their foliage, especially on plants with lighter-colored leaves.
Although they are native to the tropics, many begonias grow at relatively high altitude so they don’t do well in extreme heat or cold. What’s cool to comfortable for us is just right for them too.
Plant in any commercial potting mix, or make your own using lots of organic matter. Most begonias prefer even moisture, some do best if the mix is allowed to partially dry between waterings. Make sure water drains well from both the mix and the container, as wet roots rot. High humidity is preferred, but the plants’ waxy coating allows them to tolerate Colorado’s dry air.
Fertilizers for foliage plants should be higher in nitrogen; if you want flowers, then use a balanced fertilizer. Follow package directions. Begonias are highly sensitive to salts, so if you use an inorganic houseplant fertilizer, make a point of flushing the soil every few months by watering until a steady stream flows from the bottom of the pot. Make sure you allow the soil to drain well afterward.
I understand that begonias do get the occasional sap-sucking pest , but I’ve never experienced any on mine, even when they’re surrounded by other houseplants infested with scale, spider mites, or fluffy white mealy bugs. That’s a major plus!
If you want more plants, perhaps to give as gifts, begonias are easy to propagate. You can buy or collect seed, or take stem or leaf cuttings. I just stick the stem in a glass of water until new roots form, or you can poke them into some potting mix in a small container. Even moisture is critical until the offshoots are established.
You can see why begonias are among my favorite houseplants. I bet that if you try growing them, they’ll be some of your favorites too.