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. Melanie says:

    Mine survived too. It’s about 2 feet tall and flowering. It isn’t hanging down, it’s growing straight up. Maybe I should cut it back?

  2. margaret says:

    @Melanie: I notice that for now the growth looks more vertical than pendulous, but I am not cutting back anything at the moment. Stay tuned. :)

  3. Keri says:

    Looks lovely! Anyone know if it comes in any other colors? I have a great place for it, but the red would clash. Where do you buy them?

  4. Rosella says:

    I LOVE begonia Bonfire! I had two last year, but they perished about halfway through the summer — I suspect that it was a combination of hot, humid weather and the gardener’s over-zealous use of the watering can. I saw them yesterday at the nursery though, and I plan to try again because they are lovely. Definitely eyecatching in colour!

    I suspect the reason that Tesselaar’s doesn’t give any instructions for over-wintering is that there is very little winter in Australia (where I come from), and they can be left out under a bush along with the cymbidium orchids and suchlike during what passes for cold weather.

    Margaret, may I just say thank you for this wonderful site — I do enjoy coming here and reading everything — both your articles and the comments. I like to begin my day here.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Rosella, and thank you for your encouraging words. I think the overwatering thing, especially with tuberous plants, is always trouble…but we all screw up now and then on that front. By the way, I like the idea that when I am winding down you are winding up over on your side of the Earth. See you soon again.

  5. Ted says:

    Mine’s up and blooming too. It spent the winter dormant, in a pot, in the living room. When it started to bud in March I watered and moved it to more sun. Flowers came by the end of April.

  6. Mahlon M says:

    Shall I tell you where I live? The Bonfires are abundant here. I saw some just the other day at The Barn. A food products place with a large greenhouse. The were stocky and had thick stems and about five inches high for $2.99. I had to buy one even if I have six large plants around the patio. I saw two large baskets at Bi-Mart with large plants in basket with other plants and then there is a wholesale place near here that had a couple thousand of small plants ready to go. I could hardly contain myself. Some of my plants are in the full sun and others are in the part shade. The folage of the ones that are in the part shade have nicer folige that the ones in the full sun. We had a few days here at 95 plus with three days at 100 to 108 degrees. Almost too much for them. I plan to dig a few tubers and keep the others in the pots to see which is better. Oh yes, I live near Portland Oregon.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome Mahlon M. Isn’t it amazing how ‘Bonfire’ went from new to mass in minutes? Such a great plant. Love your story (and hate hearing about your weather out there…the inverse of here, so sorry). See you soon!

  7. Marge says:

    Thanks for all the info about overwintering the Bonfire Begonia. I got one for the first time this spring and it is blooming profusely in a hanging basket on my deck. I was thinking about whether I could overwinter it and decided to check online. Your’s is one of the only sites I found that talks about this. I was wondering whether you had light in your basement? It’s cool and fairly dry in our basement in winter, but no light to speak of unless I use my grow lights. If I try to overwinter it upstairs, it will definitely be too warm. Also, can you just stop watering it entirely and leave the tubers in the soil in the pot until spring? I know some folks dig up their tuberous begonias in fall and keep them in fairly dry potting soil in bags. (It would be easier not to dig these up if possible). Anyway…thanks for the lovely website!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Marge. The plant will go dormant I suspect even on its own; my older large ones are already doing so, because we have had such a wet year, and I have carried them under cover so they can dry off and rest. There was no significant light in the basement, no; a little, but the plants were totally dormant, no growth at all. And yes, leave int he pot….just carry it inside, stash it and cut it back once the foliage withers.

  8. Mahlon M says:

    I found out what happened to one of my plants. The branches started to fall off and I realized that it had been planted in moisture retaining soil. I dug out most of the soil around it and replaced the soil. It is coming back now.
    It is said that the plant is easy to grow! I am begining to wonder~~~

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mahlon M. Mine “told me” that it wanted to go dormant two weeks ago by starting to droop, so I carried them inside (away from any more rain) and am going to dry them off for an early dormancy. I think the extra-wet year was enough already; they need a break.

  9. Janet says:

    I bought my first bonfire begonia this year and want to try to winter it over. I get the part about letting it go dormant and not watering it, but how far should I cut it back and what would be “too” warm? Don’t have a basement but do have an attached garage that things don’t freeze in. I live in Northern Michigan (not the UP) but it does get cold here. Any suggestions? Thanks for your help.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Janet. I don’t think the garage is going to be right; I am talking closer to high-40s consistently or 50ish, not possibly just above freezing, which I suspect your garage might get close to, no, in bad weather? Any mudroom closet that’s cool or some such?

      As for cutbacks, it will start to get soft and topple over (the stems I mean) when it goes to sleep, and the parts will hopefully just dry up and fall off, with a little help at the very end. Unfortunately we had so much rain here this year that mine got tired early, so I got them out of the rain, under shelter, and let them start to dry last month, but some decay was happening in the softening stems so I had to cut it back forcibly rather than let it wither. Not sure what will happen next.

      My largest plant was the worst; the younger, smaller ones seem to be drying off nicely.

      I think you just watch and wait. If you cannot figure out a place that’s cooler, just try the house, but no water and not a baking-hot spot. Can’t hurt to try.

  10. Declan says:

    Thanks for all the information re overwintering the Begonia Bonfires. It is just the information I needed. My plants are outside and still have some flowers. It is a lovely plant and has great colour throughout the summer and autumn.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Declan, and you are welcome. What a great plant; I look forward to seeing them in bloom again next year, but for now they are all tucked away. Hope to see you here soon again.

  11. Mahlon says:

    Well, my Bonfires are just about wilted. Stems are falling off. I have them in a cool semi dark area indoors. I have left them in the pots.
    fingers crossed.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mahlon. Exactly: Do your best, then hope for the best. I leave mine in the pots, too. This year some got so overwatered in our torrential summer weather that they rotted, but others went into storage and wilted gradually as you describe, and look fine. Crossing my fingers here, too. See you soon!

  12. Mahlon M says:

    Hi again. My Bonfires, in pots, look good and firm They have been in the garage since they went dorment. The high and low temperatures outside are running between 35 and 50 degrees.
    I brought them out and placed them in a small green house and the temperatures are now running between 40 and 70, being in the greenhouse and if the sun is out or not.
    When do you suppose I can expect them to start sprouting and should I add a little water and fertiiizer to them now or later? Can’t wait for the blooms!!

    1. Margaret says:

      @Mahlon: Mine started to get these tiny growth points (many of them) In about March last year, so keep an eye out. I would not water or feed till they show signs of life, and then water sparingly (not sure I’d feed until they are really in active growth, but I am conservative about that).

  13. Mahlon M says:

    Thanks loads. I scraped a very small piece off the part sticking out of the ground on one of them with my finger nail. It was green so now comes the waiting.

  14. Ray S says:

    How many bulbs do you put per pot? I have put three per pot the last two years and there was a profusion of cascading blossoms. I don’t know if they over wintered successfully yet.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Ray. Depending on the size of the tuber and the size of the pot. The first year or two as you say two or three filled a big hanging basket type of pot. Now the tubers have grown so I will divide them and give them more room, I think, though they seem to do well even pretty crowded. Mine are just about to want to wake up a bit. Careful not to water too much when they are still yawning…just enough, but never soggy.

  15. Lori says:

    Hi! Does anyone here know where they are selling Bonfire Begonias and Cascading Begonias in scarlet in Central New Jersey. My place is not getting them this year and my backyard decor depends on them. We love them! Thanks! Lori

  16. Cheryl says:

    I bought 2 last spring at a local nursery after seeing them in a planter paired with the Super Elfin Xp Salmon Star Impatiens in the White Flower Farm catalog. I followed wintering recommendations. They wintered well. The tubers are large and rather flat. The shoots are 2 ft straight up rather than hanging down. They have flowers but the leaves are sparse. Have I done something wrong? Do they eventually hang down or do they only hang down as young plants? I really liked them with the Super Elfin Xp Salmon Star Impatiens but the proportion will be off. Can you post a picture of what they look like after wintering but later in the summer?

    Thanks so much!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Cheryl. It sounds as if they have stretched out from growing too fast at first when there was not enough light maybe? Is that possibly the case? Watering these critters too much at any time, and especially when they are first starting to grow, can cause them to surge in growth, it seems to me, and even flop over and rot. Not sure whether you watered much at first and what kind of light they were getting when they awoke.

  17. Cheryl says:

    Light could be a possibility for one of the 2 plants. It had one main stalk and a couple of smaller ones. I cut the large stalk and put it in water. It continues to leaf and bloom. Too bad it won’t develope roots. The smaller buds are starting to grow. The area where the plants spend the winter and spring has a lot of light but as the trees leaf out and the canopy grows the light diminishes. I have moved the begonias to areas with better light.

    Is there a rule of thumb for watering? How far into the soil should I check for moisture? Is the moisture holding soil a no-no or do you just have to be more careful not to overwater?

    Love the note below. We have a lot of rabbits. I bought a russian sage last year because rabbits don’t eat them. The rabbit topped it and left the stalk. I put in water. It rooted so I replanted it. It came up this year. You never know when you will learn something new or who your teacher will be.


  18. Mahlon M says:

    Hi Have you seen “Tiny Mice”? If not, look for it and click on the link that displays the “Bat Like Face. Red and Purple”. It is sooo cute and everyyone should have one.. I have two plants and the blooms are profuse. You look at the bloom and it is actually funny. Looks like a Bat with large red ears. Let me know what you think.
    It goes great withthe Bonfires!

  19. Gayle Kier says:

    I tossed my pot of bonfires under the overhang of my bay window. I didn’t look at them again till March. We had single digit weather here in the Seattle area last winter – I saw growth in late March and brought them inside by a window and started watering them. That gave them a jumpstart on the season and they have grown absolutely HUGE this summer!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Gayle. That’s amazing. Truly. And also hilarious. Talk about “thriving on neglect,’ huh? So all I need is a bay window overhang in an unseasonably cold Seattle winter and I am all set? :) Hope to see you soon.

  20. Ho Ho Tai says:

    I’m not a gardener by any means. Not the least tint of green to my thumb. If I stick my thumb in the dirt, everything in a 2′ radius dies. None the less, we do like some plants around. We’re limited to what we can grow on our deck or patio (townhouses – no available dirt for gardening.) We will usually buy 4 -6 pots of this and that at the Farmer’s Market, usually stuff to attract hummingbirds – petunias and cigarette plants.

    Out shopping by myself, spotted this wild-looking thing in a garden shop. Turned out to be a Bonfire Begonia. I had never seen, nor heard of them before. It was on sale and I had to have it. It was in a hanging basket, which works best for us.

    I brought it home and went in to tell my wife that I had a new friend for her, waiting int the car. Her name was Bonfire Bag-o-nee-a. She was cheap and flashy, homeless, didn’t eat much or make noise. Given a good home, she would spread cheer and delight. Wifey, not knowing what to expect, came out to have a look – and was as delighted as I was.

    I don’t really ‘care for’ plants – I triage them. I move them around from sun to shade, water every other day or so, depending on temp and humidity, and give them a shot of Schultz or Miracle-Gro about twice a week. Most of our plants to OK on this regimen: Bonnie thrived!

    She soon sent out long vines, hanging from the basket, several feet long. The blossoms went from a few dozen to well over a hundred. At first, I was dismayed at how rapidly the blossoms fell off, but they were renewed just as rapidly. It turned out to be the best hummingbird plant we had ever had. With the blossoms constantly renewed, there was always a fresh supply of nectar for the birds.

    I soon realized how readily the fallen blossoms stained whatever came in contact with them – after I had inadvertently tracked a few onto the carpet. No problem for my handy steam cleaner, through. My original annoyance soon turned to the endearment one feels for the idiosyncrasies of any Loved One.

    I am guilty of over-anthropomorphizing this plant! ‘She’ has always seemed female, and has turned into a wild gypsy dancer, swirling this way and that in the wind, skirts flying, shedding a bit of herself on all comers.

    It is now late October, here in Minnesota. The winds and rain are upon us and she dances on. I want to bring her in, but not sure how to prepare ‘her’ for winter. Should I let ‘it’ freeze, so that the sap goes back to the tuber, cut off the tendrils, keep it on the sun porch? It would probably bloom in spurts throughout the winter, just as my Christmas Cactus does. I can’t quite bring myself to consign it to the dark basement.

    By the way, my other crop this year was a half dozen pots of hot peppers red chili habaneros, bananas – all prolific. I have enough frozen peppers for years of hot chili. But I’ll grow more tomorrow.

    Not bad for a guy who can kill a bush at ten yards, just by pointing my thumb at it.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Ho Ho Tai. I am at least as guilty of anthropomorphizing plants as you are, and don’t intend to ever stop doing so. They are really like friends and family, aren’t they?

      I love your story, and am glad to “meet” another who has been badly bitten by the same bug as I. Welcome, as I say; welcome!

  21. Anna says:

    Hi Margaret,

    First of all, wow! I am so excited to try overwintering these! Second…I’m a master gardener intern and am helping find photos to post on the website of the Friends School Plant Sale, one of Minnesota’s largest annual plant sales. It’s a school fundraiser put on by all volunteers. Would you be willing to allow us to use this lovely photo for the website? https://awaytogarden.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/begonia-buddha.jpg

    Best regards,

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Anna. Fine with me, yes, for this usage, but please include a credit with a link. Thanks! Your sale sounds fantastic…ah, how I wish a road trip was on the schedule. :)

  22. kathryn says:

    Thanks for the great pictures! I love bonfire begonias! mine from last year is coming back alot like your 2nd picture. My tubers are showing a bit more though I think? Would you add more dirt to cover tubers? Any advice is appreciated!
    Thanks :)

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Kathryn, and nice to “meet” you. I haven’t really buried them as much as repotted them with the tuber just below the soil surface – no more than an inch. I don’t know if that’s correct, but I never put them very deep because they are so prone to rotting if they stay wet.

  23. Janie says:

    I am so happy to find this site (Lovely!!) and read that I can keep my bonfire over the winter. My first love was the Red Dragon Wing begonia two summers ago and I buy them every year now. My second love is the Bonfire Begonia that I discovered last year. I did not keep either the Dragon wing or the Bonfire and wish I had known then what I know now. I will try keeping them all this year and see what happens. I live in an apartment on the second floor. I made a garden outside along a tree line that I can look out on. I do not have a place in my apartment to winter the begonias but am thinking the storage unit would be perfect. It stays cool in there and no light to speak of. I am going to try it though. Once they start growing in the pots next year do I need to repot them or can they continue to grow in the same pot and dirt from the previous year? Mine are all hanging plants.

  24. grikdog says:

    Has anyone noticed that they don’t make such great basket subjects as they get older? Mine have become more like begonia trees over the years.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Grikdog. I agree! I actually put three in a larger container this year to see if they’d make a large fountain-like mass together. I haven’t tried pinching when they first come up or anything — not sure how they would respond.

      Welcome, Janie. I store them in the same pot/soil over the winter (without watering) and then if they are getting too big I pop them out and put them in a slightly larger one with some fresh soil the next. Often they stay in the same pot a couple of years, though, if it’s not tiny.

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