growing fancy-leaf begonias, indoors and out

begoniaIN LATE WINTER ‘YOU JUST TRY TO KEEP THEM BARELY ALIVE,’ Mobee Weinstein said when we met at a professional event one recent February.  I was lamenting my winter-weary collection back at home, and consoled to hear from a pro that I wasn’t abusing my begonias, plants that Mobee, longtime foreman of gardeners for the New York Botanical Garden, introduced me to early on in our gardening careers. My begonias are at their lowpoint foliage-wise around then but some are always flowering anyhow—’tis the season. What courageous, forgiving members of my household and garden.

I just call them all fancy-leaf begonias, but they divide into several structural groups:

  • Fibrous-rooted ones have cane-like stems and often wing-like leaves.
  • Rhizomatous types grow from fleshy, caterpillar-like structures inclined to spread over the pot lips or even stand upward.
  • The extra-flashy Rex begonias, which are a little trickier if you get too cool or too hot since they may defoliate in protest, are rhizomatous. I fail with them; my conditions are not to their liking.
  • There are also semi-tuberous and tuberous begonias, with swollen bases, but my collection doesn’t include any right now.

Though I am not in Zone 10 (minimum temperature 30-40 degrees F), where they’d be hardy, fancy-leaf begonias play an important role in my summer garden, anyhow, spending some of May through September or so outdoors, weather permitting. They love those months of high humidity, growing happily in the filtered light to the east of the house (above) where they spare me from buying lots of annuals for “color” along the front path, thanks to their spectacular leaves. My potted begonias provide most of the color I need.

In the offseason, the begonias are a little less thrilled with our shared digs, since low humidity with the heat on and drafty, cold spots under 55ish degrees are not to their liking. They also want bright light, which is hard during Northeast winters. Supplemental fluorescent lighting, and perhaps a humidifier, would make them happier, but we’ve managed anyhow for years; some of the ones I grow as houseplants in winter have been with me a decade or more. (One newer acquisition, from Logee’s, is the very showy orange-leafed ‘Autumn Ember,’ below.)

What they dislike:

  • Low humidity, especially when 75-plus.
  • Temperatures under high-50s or better yet, 60 (this is where I fail; my brightest winter spots are in the too-cool-for-comfort mudroom).
  • Wet feet or soggy soil, ever (no standing in saucers of water, or watering before dry).
  • Overpotting.

What they love:

  • Humidity.
  • Bright light, such as a west window or bright east one. A few hours of direct sun offseason; filtered in summer. Rexes can manage with a little less, generally.
  • Feeding weakly, weekly, in periods of active growth. I do not feed Octoberish to sometime in February.
  • Less water in winter (once weekly is usually plenty in my conditions).
  • Pinching tips of young plants to promote fullness, such as when a caterpillar-like rhizome wants to jump out and over the lip of the pot. (With fibrous types, you can prune anytime things are headed out of control.)
  • More from the American Begonia Society.

My favorite easy fancy-leaf begonias:

‘Marmaduke’ (above right) is a rhizomatous type; a robust grower with the most spectacular dimpled leaves that are chartreuse-spotted-in-red. Officially listed at 12-16 inches tall, my bigger of two plants is twice that, and wider.

‘Little Brother Montgomery:’ Though the catalogs say this fibrous cane type gets to 16 inches tall (true in a small pot), my oldest ‘Little Brother’ is really a ‘Big Brother’—a shrub-sized thing of more than 3 feet high and wide (not counting the 14-inch-wide pot). Leaves are Rex-like, patterned like stained glass in bronzey-green, reddish and silvery-gray (see leaf details, near bottom of the page). Put two or three plants in a 14-inch pot and you’ll have a shrub in no time.

‘Black Fancy’ is rhizomatous, but more compact than ‘Marmaduke’ and with the deepest-color, smooth leaves that have wine-colored undersides. ‘Kit Kat’ has smallish bronze-green leaves spotted in chartreuse; ‘Palomar Prince’ is dark green with splashes of lighter green, the leaves deeply cut.

Want a longer list of possibilities? Houseplant expert Tovah Martin gave me hers in this interview, with her growing tips, too.

Propagating begonias:

Whether from pieces of rhizome, leaves, tips or stems, many fancy-leaf begonias are easy to propagate. I could not do better than the expert of all experts, Brad Thompson, in explaining how.

Fancy-leaf begonia sources:

Begonias look great indoors and out with ferns, of course—a classic Victorian combination—and my friend Mobee from NYBG is expert on those, too. Do I sense another houseplant collection in my future?

  1. Johanna says:

    Wow, I love that “Little Brother Montgomery”! Beautiful shape to those leaves. I have some generic kind of tuberous begonia I bought last summer to bring some coral-pink color to my entry. I ended up liking the color so much I painted my front door that color! It’s had lots of flowers on it inside all winter long — I hope it does well moving back outside this summer.

    Might have to get some Little Brothers to join her!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Gardener on Sherlock Street. Mine can barely wait to get back outside, either (as can I!)…but not so long now. Nice to “meet’ you and hope to see you soon again.

  2. Cambree says:

    I am in zone 9 and have a small pot of begonias too. The leaves aren’t as fancy as these, but the cheery bright flowers seem to bloom all the time.

    Thanks for this informative post!

  3. virginia morningstar says:

    Another great post! Especially like the sources on propagating, which has been on my mind. Now that I’ve gotten used to the new format website, am also impressed with better usability and navigation. Bravo!

  4. Laura W says:

    What timing! Just yesterday I was admitting to my recent need to collect fancy leaf begonias! I was always drawn to them and ended up growing a few each season. But it wasn’t until I happened upon the begonia collection on display in the greenhouses at Planting Fields last winter that I was struck. All that foliage! All those varieties! I needed to start a fancy leaf collection of my own ASAP. So far so good, everyone is making it through the winter. Now when the Logee’s emails show up, I have to delete them immediately for fear of irrational ordering.

  5. Laurie says:

    Thanks for an informative post. I haven’t tried begonias yet, but they’re lovely. I loved seeing your prayer flags out the window, and wonder if you’ll tell a bit more about what’s growing in the 2 outdoor pots near the begonias? Water plants of some sort?

    1. Margaret says:

      @Laurie: Yes, water in big glazed terra cotta troughs and then Azolla ( a floating pondweed I order from fish and water-garden online stores each year, not hardy) floating on top.

  6. Freddie says:

    Keep in mind that deer treat these leaves like potato chips – I loved my summer display of fancy begonias until one morning I went out and every single one of them had been eaten down to stumps – now I nestle them very close to the house on the front porch.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Freddie. No deer are permitted here in my yard, as my deer fence so clearly tells them. But yes, they’d love to get those begonias, and just about everything else here. Ugh. Nice to see you, and do come say hello again soon.

      Welcome, Alisa. They are beautiful plants, aren’t they? What colors in those leaves. Glad to meet you, and stop in soon again, yes?

  7. kay graham says:

    I am so happy with you advice about just getting them through the winter!! I bought some at Chanticleer in the fall and I’ve been struggling with them since. I am so excited, just found your blog. I bought tickets for the Hollister House event last evening. We are planning a week along the Hudson and the Berkshires and Connecticut gardens. My introduction to gardens as rooms (a bezillion years ago) was at Naumkeag. I am now in my late 60’s and want to revisit.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Kay. Sounds like a wonderful trip you have planned! As for the begonias, most are pretty resilient; I have some that look great all years long and others that really sulk in winter and then rebound, so I try to watch their inclinations and learn from it. Trial and error. See you at Hollister House and here again on the blog soon, I hope.

      Welcome, Lynn. The show sounds wonderful — lucky you. I think they’re great bargains (under $10 a plant, for something that shapes up into a good size over the first year and then lives many years). Perhaps your “envy” will become “collection”? :) See you soon.

  8. Lynn says:

    What a happy coincidence to see your wonderful fancy leaf begonias….I attended the Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show this week and they (the begonias) were used in many presentations. Now I have fancy leaf begonia envy!

  9. kim jessen says:

    I too have become an inverate collector of fancy leafed begonias this year. Curly Fire Flush (leaves are deep purple with a deep deep green, almost chocolaty, background on leaves spiraled like a snail’s shell) and Phoe’s Cleo(incredible chartreuse and vermillion streaked leaves, as if someone splattered a two toned paintbrush all over them) are two of my latest discoveries.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Kim. The spiraled ones are amazing, aren’t they? I don’t have any at present. Now you have me off looking these two kinds up…uh-oh. See you soon here again I hope.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Susan. Every year by about February I wish I had gotten the humidifier and plant lights going…but then I remember: These plants will bounce back, as long as you don’t rot them off with overwatering or let them get too terribly cold. Maybe some year I’ll make them a dream home here with light and humidity, but for now we are doing OK. :) See you soon!

  10. Barbara says:

    Hi Margaret. Just bought my first Rex Begonia yesterday after reading this enticing post. I am completely entranced with the beauty of these plants but fear placing them outside as I live in the country and am beseiged by deer. I hope that they will do well as houseplants??

    Thanks for all your invaluable information!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Barbara. Yes, they do just fine as houseplants, though as I say they love their humidity so be aware of that if you have A/C. Maybe you have a deck or porch they can enjoy — my sister summers hers in a screen porch, for instance, that gets decent light but is safe from critters. Hope to see you soon again.

  11. Barbara says:

    I live in Virginia so no problem with the humidity! And just so happen to have a porch also so thanks for the tips and happy gardening! By the way, the forsythia are just starting to bloom down here. Spring is working its way up north!!

  12. Tiffany says:

    I have a leafy begonia that I have only seen in my family. I have been told that they are extinct, but look like your Marmaduke in shape, but are smooth and all green. Could you help me with a place I could find out exactly what I do have?
    Thank you!

  13. Lucy says:

    I have owned this begonia for over 40 years! I thrives on benigh neglect! I water it when I remember. Only one other person has been able to propagate a cutting. I looks like a Red Fred Begonia. What can you tell me about it. I am getting ready to repot it because the leaves are getting smaller. Used to be a big as saucers; now only as big as my hand.

  14. joey says:

    Stunning foliage, Margaret, and informative post. Love these beauties and recently did a post on my Rex, a true beauty that pairs well with all my poinsettias and holiday greenery.

  15. Jayne says:

    Phoe’s Cleo is one of my new favorites too! Madame Queen just makes me smile – propagated her when she got mammouth! I love all the “eyelash” begonias. Love Margaret’s ‘Black Fancy.’ I bought one similar at the New Canaan Nature Center many years ago and I have searched to find its name – coloring is the same but it grows tighter and more compact, stays small. Thank you for the sources – will continue my search!!!

  16. Marion says:

    Begonias are some of my favorite houseplants too! A semi related question – I have a client who wants some batwing begonias for his containers next summer. The problem is that the ones I know of prefer shade while his containers are in full sun. He claims that he has seen these type of batwing begonias growing in california in full sun. does anyone know which cultivars do best in full sun?
    thanks so much for any info you might share!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Marion. I assume this means angel-wing types (cane begonias with angel- or bat-shaped wings) and especially the one like this? I don’t know about full sun (especially in California) but would call Kartuz Greenhouses (which is actually in California) or Logees, both of whom have substantial begonia expertise, and get recommendations. I have grown ones called ‘Dragon Wing’ (so many wings! confusing!) in sun here in the Northeast, but not baking hot full sun–more filtered but bright nonetheless.

  17. ann says:

    Almost gave up on a couple of pots of fancy leaf begonias but seems they may survive confindment in house after all. But the good news is my Angel Wing is five foot tall and covered with umbels making it a tree that some think is beautiful enough to put Christmas presents underneath.

  18. Joan says:

    Margaret, why are the edges of some of my fancy leaf begonia turning to crunchy brown paper? I let them dry out first, and they’re surrounded by many plants to give them a healthy environment, in a southwest window.

  19. kate says:

    hi- i just purchased a small batwing begonia, and the woman at the farmers market told me that it will be fine in my office, which is unnaturally well-lit (ie, no window near me), but chilly because of the air conditioning. after reading your write up, it sounds like i’m better off bringing it home where it can sit in the light all day. I live in the northeast (ie very humid in the summer).

    Can you tell me if this assumption is correct? if so, any recommendations for a good office plant?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Kate. I have grown them in my former office, but you are right that more natural conditions (with humidity, light…) would be preferable. I think they will do fine for a bit in the office but if they had the choice, I know they’d prefer the other. It’s good to rotate things between the office and home so none of them suffers too long in the tougher environment, I think. The toughest “office plant” of all is Sansevieria, sometimes called mother-in-law’s tongue, and there are very showy varieties. But many people don’t like their stiff, sculptural look (I do). I get bored with the usual “office” suspects (so-called peace lily, spider plant…) so again, I’d prefer to rotate things like the begonia and other foliage plants through the space so they all get a break from time to time.

  20. Dahlink says:

    I am the farthest thing from a begonia expert, since I only grow Palomar Prince (pictured in your lovely slideshow, Margaret). It was a Christmas gift after we added on a conservatory to our house, and it thrives there even in winter. In fact I have divided it a couple of times. I gave one division to a friend with a green thumb, and she has propagated 2 or 3 more plants from her first one. My two are looking very perky here in March and they are just finishing blooming–small white to pink flowers. I have never put mine outside in summer–maybe this year I will.

  21. Mickey Hyde says:

    I have a begonia that is green on top of the leaf and red underneath. Some leafs are curly on the edges and some smooth. The curly ones seem to devalope another leaf in the center. Do you know the name of this one?

  22. Cathryn Kasper says:

    Dear Dear Margaret,
    You have saved a begonia from certain doom-thank you!
    I had a gorgeous purple leafed begonia that my cher Henri decided to dig up (this was 3 years ago when he was a kitten)- repeatedly. Finally, my neighbor took it as a charity case, and it lived with her for two+ years. Covered in mealy bugs, she returned it last summer and I tried it outdoors, giving it several washings – to no avail. However, a blast of cold weather, below 40′, killed them off :-)
    I couldn’t decide what to do…then your article appeared. Now it is indoors, with new growth, and hope. Merci bien!

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