it lives: my overwintered begonia ‘bonfire’

begonia-buddhaI T LIVES, AFTER A WINTER IN THE BASEMENT, a winter with no care (the way the cannas get no care and just sit there, except this guy stayed in his pot, soil and all). Begonia ‘Bonfire,’ a selection of B. boliviensis that we all wondered out loud together how to successfully carry over last year, lives. Proof:

begonia-bonfire-sproutsTada! (That’s it, waking up.) It wasn’t a cheap plant; I had bought two hanging baskets, and feared they’d be throwaways. But B. boliviensis and its descendants make tubers, and as commenters Peter, Ed, Amy and Manny guessed last June during our discussion, you just let them rest in a cool but not anywhere near freezing place, if you don’t have a greenhouse. (You may recall that another one I bought, not in a hanging basket but dormant, just sat and sat there…and sat there…and then decided to awaken just as winter was about to start. Not nice behavior, and actually terribly inconvenient, but it, too, is growing just fine now. They are tough.)

That unearthly thing below is another outcropping from the pancake-like ‘Bonfire’ tuber, an even-later riser waking up across the pot from the livelier eyes above. I think a key is not to overwater, and to let them show you when they want what, and when they want to get going. I never let them go so dry for prolonged periods that they shriveled, but I never really watered much, either, except then they were in active growth, so the tubers stayed firm and healthy. I just kept checking each month through the winter with my finger: Were the tubers still firm? Yes. And like I said, tada!


I look forward to ‘Bonfire’ returning to its glory state (top) as the season heats up here. And one more thought: You have to love a plant that resurrects in a recession; so thrifty, such an unexpected bonus.

  1. Tariq Qureshi says:

    Hi Margaret,

    Very useful information in the blog and comments section as well. I am looking to get my hands at all 4 varieties of the Bonfires. I am in Pakistan. Is there any way to get the tubers of these plants. I will have them shipped to a US address and then they can mail it to me. Even live plants would be okay. Or if you could point me to a good source somewhere else. Appreciate it.


  2. Audrey says:

    This is the 2nd year I have had a Bonfire. I live on the top floor of my building in Lancaster, Pa and have put my Bonfire out on my balcony. It survives all the heat, wind and rain we have had this year. (Of course I keep it moist) The hummingbirds just love it. This year I am going to try and overwinter it using the directions mentioned in your website. Don’t know if I will have room in my apartment for such a large plant (it got huge this year), but I have a choice of a garage under the apartments of a cage area. The garage would get more light from a window in the garage and the lights going off and on as cars come and go. The cage area would have no light but be warmer. What do you think?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Audrey. It needs to go dormant (meaning it will have no stems or leaves at all for months and months) so when it starts to look a little pooped (as mine is signaling to me a tiny bit already — but certainly this next month) you must stop watering, put it somewhere that rain doesn’t hit it any longer, and let it go to sleep gradually. Then you cut off the collapsed stems, and stash it somewhere — no light needed, but not in a freezing spot like the garage (I am assuming it’s not heated).

  3. Geri says:

    I, too, have been bitten by the bonfire begonia “bug”. They are so beautiful. I am wintering mine in my basement. One tuber has started to grow early. It’s about seven inches tall but because of lack of light, it’s almost white (looks a little like a white asparagus stalk). Not sure what to do with it. It’s way too early to put outside even though it’s been a very mild winter in NJ. Any suggestions?

    1. Margaret says:

      Must get it into strong light, Geri, otherwise it will use up its energy producing stems that don’t get enough to be strong and healthy. Put it in the brightest window you can, and water VERY lightly (once will do it for awhile — not all the time — just enough to prevent it from exhausting itself/shriveling up as it pushes growth). So basically: grow it like a houseplant, yes?

      @Bobbye: I don’t know personally, but the very reliable Pacific Bulb Society talks about it at this link (summer cuttings).

  4. Kristi says:

    I am having the same problem as some of the tohers have mentioned. I pulled my plant out a few weeks ago and it started grwoing immediately. It is probably a foot tall now and growing straight up. I guess maybe I have watered too much and it is in a mildly sunny spot, but the questions is- can it be fixed? Do I just move to a sunnier spot and water less? Help!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kristi. I have never tried “pinching” back the shoots of a ‘Bonfire’ begonia partway, but with other leggy plants that’s often what I’d do. The key with these guys seems to be to get them into strong light just as they awaken (first tiny buds) and water once — just enough, but not a lot.

  5. Kristi says:

    I just wanted to report back that I pinched back the shoots on my plant, moved it to a little bit sunnier place, and made sure to only water when dry and it has bloomed beautifully! I am so excited! I think it may be prettier than it was last year. I’m really not sure which of the three things helped it to finally curve over and start blooming but I am pleased with the results. Thank you!

  6. Geri says:

    Mine are doing well, also. I should have pinched mine back when they first started to “awaken” because they are quite leggy and not as full as I would like. I’m hoping that they will begin to fill in as the warmer weather progresses. Maybe I should have put more than one tuber in the pot so they wouldn’t be so skimpy. Oh well, there’s always next year!

  7. Ancy says:

    I just got one today in a hanging basket and didn’t know whether I could keep it alive over winter or not, so this info is helpful. The lady at the garden center where I got it didn’t know anything about it.

    1. margaret says:

      Glad to help, Ancy. I have had some of mine for four or so years now and they are big. I actually like them when they are smaller, too, so my next task: learn to divide them. Need to do some homework on that first…

  8. Lynnie Taft says:

    Mine is doing beautifully now st the start of fall in Indiana. I moved it to the gound, it was too heavy hanging. Protected it during storms, has held up well. Thanks for tips for letting it go to sleep this winter! Love it!

    1. margaret says:

      Good tips, Lynnie. It does like to store really dry, and about now I move it into the garage to let it get started in that direction.

  9. Linda says:

    This might sound super strange to you guys, but I bought a bonfire begonia from Gurney’s mail-order last spring. It was NOT a tuber when it arrived in the mail. I planted it according to directions, and it did well for a couple of months, then shriveled up and went away. Now, in November, a small shoot has emerged from the soil…no tuber. I have taken it up and potted it in a small clay pot inside my house. Why is it not part of a tuber? It had quite a few beautiful orange blooms this summer before it died. Do they have cycles of growth? Does the tuber come later?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Linda. It was probably a rooted cutting, but will form a tuber eventually as it ages if it’s a B. boliviensis cultivar like ‘Bonfire.’ No tuber when young.

  10. Eileen says:

    THANK YOU Margaret for the very simple easy to follow steps to overpowering the Bonfire Begonia. This is my first season with mine and really new to begonias and trying to understand the difference in the types and needs of each. After MUCH searching I found your piece on the Bonfire. Your pictures and simple description of your experience is exactly what I was looking for. I live in Northern New England so will begin the preparation for a winter’s nap for my beauty, which by the way has already started turning yellow and has many many seed pods! With such a strange summer weathered, who knows what winter will present. Thank you again.

  11. Pat Dittberner says:

    I live in central texas where it gets very hot and the sun is very intense. Would this plant make it in full sun here, or would it burn like the dragon wing begonias I’ve had?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Pat. Unlikely that any begonia will like your full sun. Can you offer these some filtered or indirect light?

    2. Irene says:

      I live in the interior of BC on the edge of a desert zone. Summer temps are often forty degrees Celsius. Mine did fine with just dappled shade from a large lacey tree in the mid to late afternoon. It did not burn or shrivel. I was amazed!

  12. Kate says:

    The bonfire begonia finally made its way to NW Montana this year and I’m thrilled to get some info on wintering over, especially after managing to shield 4 baskets from our first rounds of frost last week. Finding that cool spot that doesn’t freeze is the trick here!

      1. Bev says:

        Hello Margaret,
        I’m so excited to find others who have the beautiful Lilliput Begonia. I had four in 2013 and just stuck then in my basement. Well – in early Spring they started shooting up. They were beautiful, but the stems got enormous – some about the size of a fifty cent piece. NOW, I will put them down in my basement for Winter again. How and when do I separate the tubers so that the plants won’t be so big next year????

        1. margaret says:

          have never done it except in spring, Bev, but don’t know what’s the “right” time. I keep wondering if perhaps pinching them to control the eventual size is the way to go, but I am hesitant to try it, so mine are big, too. Sorry not to know the answer.

  13. Janie Landes says:

    I have had bonfire begonias hanging plants for 4 summers now, but keep buying them. I live in a small apartment with just a storage bin in another building. I have not been successful with anything coming back. I think it is because I do not catch the right time at the end of summer to stop watering. Plus I have no place to put them inside out of the rain. The biggest problem I have the last two summers is they rot before it is end of summer. The hanging pots have changed from the growers and they do not drain out the holes in the bottom. There is a plastic plate inside (has holes around the edge) and it covers the drain holes in the center of the pot. I think the weight of the plants keeps the disk tight against the bottom. This is how my dragon wing begonias are too. Last year I poked holes through but it was too late. What is the point of the pots now? How do I know when I am watering enough? I used to just water until until it came out the bottom.

    1. margaret says:

      Wow, that sounds like exactly the wrong pot for those begonias, as you say, Janie. Though they like regular watering while growing, they never want to stand in the wet, and especially want to dry down at season’s end. The key is to read their first signal (when they start to look less vigorous) and immediately take them under cover — like on a porch where they will get no more rain — to let them start to move toward dormancy on their own timetable. Then eventually I move them to the cellar, as mentioned.

      1. Janie Landes says:

        Thank you. I thought so too. I very carefully tipped the pots into my hand and removed the disk from each pot. They were both root bound to the bottom of the plant! They couldn’t breath well I bet. They were new and looked fine, but they looked healthier within two days. Now when I water, I stop when it runs out the bottom. I did the same thing with my two Dragon wing begonia pots. I think they are all enjoying spreading their roots a little more. I do not have a porch as I am in an apartment complex so I think I will put them further under the trees when I need to protect them so they can go dormant. Than off to the storage room. Thank you again!

  14. Cheddarchick says:

    I also overwintered my Begonia boliviensis. she is resting in my refrigerator drawer as we speak. I just loved it last year. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to start them back up?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cheddarchick. Refrigerator, huh? That is a new one on me. Fridges are about 35 or 36F, below the minimum I have ever tried stashing my tuberous begonias (in my cellar, it’s usually in the mid-40s at the lowest, to around 50–cool, not cold). Assuming it’s OK with having been that cold, the key is not to wake it up too early, and also not to give it water until it is telling you it’s ready. Tiny growth points start to emerge (again, this is when I have it stored probably 10 or 15 degrees warmer than you have it…so I don’t know if it will wake up in the refrigerator). I’d probably move it to a cool but not cold spot around mid-March or so if you see no life before then, and watch. Don’t water till it starts to show life, and then water once and let it respond. It needs bright light once it begins to grow, or it will stretch and be a mess, so that’s the hard part: Where in late winter/early spring is there a spot with strong light?

  15. Cheddarchick says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I have a heated garage (about 50+*) But it has a beautiful southern window I can put it in. I checked it regularly over the winter and it seems fine. Still firm and no mold. It was in the crisper drawer. I plan on bringing it out in March some time if it shows life. I really want it to come back it was beautiful. Thanks so much for your help and I am so glad I finally found you again.

  16. Nancy Starkweather says:

    I also was delighted go see me bonfire begonia come back to life. I have found some babies sprouting up in the ground below the hanging basket. They were dug up, potted and have lived the winter as small houseplants. Can’t wait to g Ave them outside to bloom.

  17. Cheddarchick says:

    Well, no signs of life…….Out of the crisper drawer into a indirect light by the window spot. Sigh….I think I killed it…..I will wait for a for awhile yet….

  18. John says:

    Last Fall, in mid September, we had a light frost. The upper half of my Begonia went slushy, so I cut it down by half and brought it into a sunny kitchen. I started to give less water each time and it went dormant by mid-October. I left it where it was, on the microwave by a sunny window. I never let it completely dry out. In early March I soaked it, and again a week later. A few days later it was back. It grew quickly and when about a foot long, the longest branch bloomed. I cut that branch off and it is now rooted and still blooming. The main plant re-sprouted and is now a couple of inches high. Looks like I can hope for two hanging pots of bright orange this Summer!



    1. margaret says:

      ‘Bonfire’ is a tuberous begonia, and typically in spring (just before they are coming out of dormancy before too much growth begins) you divide the tubers and report each new division. If there is still no growth at this point, I wonder if it perished in the winter?

  20. Marie McRae says:

    I love begonias of all sorts, and because of your post about boliviensis I was ready when I happened upon one in a completely off the beaten path nursery in VT last fall. That was the first time I had seen one for sale. It was small but I brought it home and let it go dormant. It now has put up one sturdy stalk, with branching, and, oh those beautiful flowers! Makes all the others seem pale in comparison.

    Thanks so much for alerting me to this plant!

  21. Amie says:

    I am so happy to find you. What an exciting, well informed site. I have a boliviensis that I will try to overwinter. I live in Omaha and we have a nice cool dark basement. We are zone 5b. My plant did very well over the summer, but we are having a wet late summer so far. I’m trying to think where to move her to start to get her to dormancy and more out of the rain. I’m sure I’ll find a spot soon. I have never really gotten into begonias, I love my geraniums and over winter those and some of my herbs every year with good results.
    But this boliviensis is so pretty and the humming birds love it. And, they weren’t the only visitors to go gaga over her, my human visitors did also. I really don’t want to ditch her and buy a new one in the spring if I can help it.
    Thank you for your advice and support!

  22. Margie says:

    I have overwintered mine for 4-5 years in my garage. Some tubers are quite big (5-6”across) and others are various sizes smaller. I have them planted in the ground and in pots but flowers are much smaller than they used to be and not as floriferous and not sure why
    . I have some in full sun and some in part sun. I pinch them back early so they don’t get too leggy and fertilze regularly with miracle grow. Anyone else have this problem?

    1. margaret says:

      I might skip that fertilizer in favor of something with less Nitrogen, which can promote green growth at the expense of flowers I suspect in such a plant.

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