I used to think of Begonia as being only for mad-keen specialist collectors, but I have discovered that they are very worthy garden plants, especially for shady spots in our gardens. The so-called cane-stemmed Begonia, for example, are summer stars for foliage and flower power and have survived with equanimity the horrible weather of January this year. These tough heat and drought tolerant plants can form quite substantial shrubs 1-2m tall, although there are many cultivars that are more compact. They comprise a thicket of slender, upright bamboo-like stems, clothed with lush, lop-eared leaves that are attractive all year round and are ideal for a tropical-style garden. Some forms have deeply cut palmate foliage but the majority are known as 'angel-wing begonias' because of the unusual shape of their leaves. Foliage colour varies from fresh green through to bronze or blackish-green in some cultivars. Many varieties are beautifully freckled with silver or white spots or splashes, or veined in a contrasting colour. Others have a dramatic contrasting colour on the underside of their foliage.
Blooming can begin in November and extend until August in mild climates, and is probably at its peak in late summer and early autumn. The thick pendulous trusses of long-lasting waxy flowers make the stems arch over attractively. Flowers come in many shades of pink, as well as red, white and orange. Tall favourites include Begonia 'Irene Nuss' with lustrous bronze leaves and salmon pink flowers (ht 1.2m); Begonia 'Sophie Cecile' (ht to 1.5m) with silver splashed, deeply cut foliage which is mahogany beneath, and rose-pink flowers; and Begonia undulata (2m; 3m if left unpruned) which has fresh green leaves and crisp white flowers. On a smaller scale, Begonia 'Just Blush' (ht 1m) has soft pink flowers; Begonia 'White Cascade' (ht 1m) has dark green foliage with silvery spots and clean white flowers. There are also various hybrids which grow to less than 50cm in a range of colours.
These plants thrive in a part-shaded position with a couple of hours of morning sun, and are wonderful plants for dry spots, as they dislike being over-watered. They can also survive in sunny spots. Their upright form makes them ideal for narrow spaces such as at the side of the house and they are excellent subjects for large pots. Companion plants can include shade-lovers such as Fuchsia, Hydrangea, Plectranthus, Justicia and Impatiens. Strap-leaved or bold architectural foliage - such as that of Clivia, Philodendron or taro (Alocasia) - can provide contrast of leaf form. They can also be under-planted with any of their attractive cousins, the low-growing rhizomatous begonias, which have stunning patterned and coloured foliage and form an attractive carpet in dry shady areas.
The best place to see Begonia is at a specialist nursery, in a botanic garden (particularly the Sydney one, which has several large, beautifully maintained Begonia beds), or at one of the shows run by Begonia societies. There will be a display and sale of Begonia this coming weekend (7 and 8 March 2009) at Bloomin' Greenery Nursery, 226 Annangrove Road, Annangrove, ph (02) 9679 1386.
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One crowded hour
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