Beguiled by begonias

Sunday, 26 February 2017

A vertical planting including many Begonia, at the NSW Begonia Society Show at Annangrove

This weekend saw the annual show of the NSW Begonia Society on the site of Ross Bolwell's nursery at Annangrove, and having not been for a few years, I decided to head out there to take a look. It proved to be just what I needed to reignite my gardening enthusiasm after torrid summer weather that nearly drove me to the brink of despair.

I haven't always grown Begonia plants; in my cottage garden days I regarded them as 'quite unsuitable'. However, about 20 years ago, a very knowledgeable local gardener took me aside and said, 'You really ought to try begonias in your garden, you know', and showed me her collection of robust cane-stemmed ('tree') Begonia, laden with trusses of beautiful waxy blooms, many of them planted in quite harsh, dry spots. I was given a few cuttings - and never looked back. Now that my garden is more semi-tropical in nature, Begonia are the stalwart mainstays of my shaded garden areas: in all their forms.

The diversity of Begonia can be seen in this cart at the show

When my companion and I visited the show on Sunday, we were fortunate to arrive just as a talk by Begonia guru Ross Bolwell was about to begin. Begonia have huge diversity in their leaf shapes, forms, textures and sizes, as well as the appearance of the overall plant. Ross told us all about the many different forms of the genus, which range from the diminutive bedding Begonia and low groundcover 'rhizomatous' ones (of which the South American ones do far better in Sydney than the various Asiatic species); through to the shrubby and cane-stemmed/tree groups: some of the latter can grow to 3 m tall, though many are much more compact. Flowers are usually pinks, whites and reds, though there are orange cultivars of tree Begonia. Tuberous Begonia have a wide range of warm colours in their sumptuous flowers, but they aren't really suited to culture in Sydney, except as a temporary decoration.

Rhizomatous Begonia Al Fresco, bred by Ross Bolwell

Rhizomatous Begonia probably have the widest array of variation in their foliage, which can range from rounded forms which look like lily pads, to lop-sided hearts, stars and slim-fingered hands. Others have leaves with their centres coiled into three-dimensional spirals. Some have leaves with a highly lacquered sheen while others have velvet, hairy or pimpled surfaces. Leaf edges may be smooth, ruffled, twisted or saw-toothed. Leaf colours vary from bright to dark green, brown, gold, lime, silver, pewter, purplish brown to near black; with or without contrasting coloured veins, edges, splashes, streaks or coloured undersides. Sprays of dainty pink or white flowers appear in late winter and early spring. These plants are truly superb groundcovers in dry shady areas, and a few different ones planted apart will soon knit together to form a lovely tapestry. Ross breeds many new cultivars of these and I admired his silvery 'Al Fresco' (pictured above) and the stunning pink-tinged 'Wild Ride' during my visit. These plants can look amazing grown in a vertical garden, intermingled with other shade-lovers, as shown at the start of the blog.

Lovely cane-stemmed/tree Begonia at the nursery of Ross Bolwell in Annangrove

I'm very fond of cane-stemmed/tree Begonia too and they have beautiful foliage, said to resemble an angel's wing. Colours can vary from green to burgundy and bronze, and many cultivars have delightful silver or white spots or other markings. At the show, I fell for two white-flowered, white spotted-leaf cultivars - 'White Chandelier' and 'Arch Angel' - which I had the idea of underplanting with white-spotted freckle-face plants (Hypoestes phyllostachya) to echo the effect. These Begonia really make a statement in a shaded garden, steadily expanding to become imposing shrubs over time. They are in bloom for about nine months of the year. Ross has bred many cultivars of these types too. More compact cultivars can be grown in pots, or in hanging baskets, where the long stems will arch over attractively.

Landscape Begonia at the nursery of Ross Bolwell in Annangrove

My companion and I were particularly struck by some interesting-looking varieties that looked like giant versions of the bedding Begonia, about 60 cm tall and wide. These are a new development bred in Germany, officially called the 'BIG' series but known as 'landscape Begonia' by Ross, as they are a versatile plant for any position in the garden, whether sunny or shady, and they apparently flower all year round. They are a cross between the bedding Begonia with a shrub Begonia (unspecified), and really are a good-looking plant. There are pink-, rose- and red-flowered cultivars, with bronze- and green-leaved variations. They don't suffer from the mildew that sometimes afflicts the bedding Begonia. They can be cut back hard in early spring and will regenerate quickly. They can be grown in pots or baskets as well as in the ground. We snapped some of these up, keen to try them out for ourselves.

Begonia have few pests or diseases and are easily propagated from stem cuttings or leaves. They prefer to be kept on the drier side than to receive too much water. The plants we saw on Sunday had endured 15 days of 40 degree or more temperatures this summer but were still looking fabulous. I came away with a boxful of plants and a spring in my step, feeling more optimistic about Sydney gardening than I had for ages.