Yes, I know it sounds like an oxymoron surely begonias are those tender bedding plants that look good in hanging baskets, or leafy houseplants?
However, there really are a very few species within the genus Begonia that are proving truly hardy here in the North East of England, especially now with our winters becoming milder.
The first one I tried, some years ago now, was one with an unfortunate name about which there is some dispute B. grandis subsp. evansiana (also known as B. evansii and B. discolor) - see what I mean?
This plant really comes into its own in late summer and autumn. At the time of writing (September) it is in full song in dappled shade under a deciduous tree taking over from small spring flowering plants like anemone and epimedium. It stands about 18" tall with big fleshy yellowish-green leaves on red stems with white flowers typical of fibrous rooting begonias. It looks lovely and fresh, backlit with the autumn sun.
Since then I have acquired a red leaved variety with pink flowers, named 'Sapporo' which appears to be just as hardy, as well as B. grandis subsp. sinensis which I find not as vigorous as evansiana.
Another one just lately got from Cally Gardens in Galloway (well worth a visit by the way) is B. sikkimensis which has leaves much more deeply cut with narrow segments and which are marbled silvery grey, pale green and brown.
All these hardy begonias come from the temperate parts of China where they have been a long time in cultivation, at least from the 15th century, and where they can experience prolonged periods below freezing. They have been in use medicinally there for their astringent properties in cleaning wounds. The subspecies have been artificially selected for hundreds of years which may account for the subtle variations in colour and shape of leaf, and for the different names, however they were not introduced to England until 1804 when a plant was sent to Kew Gardens.
One valuable asset of evansiana is that it produces bulbils in the leaf axis which form a very easy way of propagating more plants. In fact, one plant will quickly become a nice clump without being a nuisance.
In conclusion, provided you are not too aggressive with the hoe in early summer (they die back completely in winter and are very slow to appear often as late as June), then you will be rewarded with a display of fresh attractive foliage and flowers right up to the first frosts.
First published in the East Yorkshire Group Newsletter, November 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 26.
© Copyright for this article: Elizabeth McManus
This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.