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Growing Begonia indoors

Published on April 15th 2021
A close up of a flower
Begonia is one of the most ubiquitous genera to hit the horticultural world. They colonise most of the tropical and subtropical regions around the world and have captured the hearts of many gardeners. There are so many species and hybrids that it is no wonder that newcomers often find themselves justifiably confused.
The genus has an eye-watering 60 sections or subdivisions. Africa is home to 16 of these with some weird and wacky ones thrown in. We take a closer look at how they fit into the large group and help you identify your Begonia at home.
Begonia solimutata
Begonia soli-mutata or sun changing Begonia is one of the most commonly available species.

Types of Begonia

Begonia can be classified using several characteristics. Looking at the stem and roots is the easiest way for the everyday gardener to identify a Begonia. The American Begonia Society uses root characteristics to subdivide the large group into three classes. Here are the classifications with some examples:
Rhizomatous: A rhizomatous root is a modified stem that grows horizontally (along the ground). This may look like a thick root with finer roots emerging from it.
  • Rex begonia
A close up of a patterned Begonia 'Silver Spirit' leaf

Painted-Leaf Begonia 'Silver Spirit'

Begonia rex 'Silver Spirit'

Fibrous-rooted: When a plant has a system made up of (only) fine or delicate roots that emerge from the stem.
  • Wax begonia/ Semperflorens
  • Cane
  • Shrub
  • Trailing
  • Thick-stemmed
A close up of a flower
Tuberous: When the lower half of the stem has thickened into a round swelling. It is compared to a bulb or corm and stores energy.
  • Bolivian
  • Lorraine
  • Hiemalis
  • Semi-tuberous
The take-home message is: ”It's the roots that make the plant”. I am not advocating that you dig out the plant to look at the roots, but rather have a general idea of what these three types of roots mean when you get to watering.
Begonia maculata
Begonia macultata inspired designer Christian Louboutin's red soled shoes.

Some mistakes to avoid

The 1900+ species and enormous amount of cultivated varieties make a single care guide unrealistic. They come from various locations worldwide and should be treated on a plant to plant basis. A good guideline is to know the type (discussed above) of Begonia.
Here are some tips:
Tip 1: Fibrous or rhizomatous roots will dry out quickly and die off faster when the roots are disturbed. The fine roots should not dry out, especially if they are in peat plugs as the peat shrinks as it dries out (and struggles to rehydrate). Also, be wary of removing all the soil when potting on. Rather pot up one size with appropriate soil surrounding the existing plug.
Tip 2: Fibrous or rhizomatous roots will require a fine growing medium. Both peat or washed coir would be suitable amendments.
Tip 3: All Begonia will require an airy mixture and deteriorate if the soil gets too compacted.
Tip 4: Tubers come with a hollow that should face upward when planting. If you are unsure, place them in a container or bag with moist soil before potting them on.
Tip 5: Tuberous Begonia will be more successful in a free-draining soil mix. Tubers can rot when left too wet, so be vigilant.
Getting the soil and light right is imperative to having a healthy begonia. Rex begonia are notoriously fussy, so it is best to air on the safe side and pot on as little as possible. Many proprietors will keep the plants in the same containers for years.
rex bedonia

Growth and Care

Like I mentioned above, it is best to know which Begonia you have as some Begonia grow in full sun, others in semi-shade. I shy away from giving a once-off list of recommendations as personal experience has taught me that some tweaking is necessary when you bring them indoors. Candide provides a guideline for specific species on each profile that you can access for this exact purpose. Just click on the profile and scroll down to care.
Try it now:
So let's rather discuss the signs and symptoms one should look out for when you take care of your Begonia.
  • Droopy leaves: The leaves droop ever so slightly when the plant needs water. If it is completely wilted, it may not come back so be sure to keep an eye on them.
  • Dry crisp edges: A sign of sunburn or low humidity (in tropical species). Some species require higher humidity due to their tropical nature. These are often harder to come by as they do not ship well. Most likely, it is due to too much sun. Move it to a slightly less exposed spot (not complete shade).
  • Reddening leaves: Too much sun. Some purposefully stress the plants to get to see this lovely red hue. It does not harm the plant per se, but it will grow slightly slower when stressed.
  • Dropping leaves: Potential root/watering problems. Old leaves will wither and drop off as new ones emerge. If the older leaves are dropping off and the newer leaves are wilted, it may be a sign of dehydration e.g. the plant had too much/little water. This can be down to dead roots or rot. If the media is dry, water and wait 24 hours to see if it perks up. If it is wet, try to propagate using a stem/leaf cutting.
  • Soft or discoloured stems: Rot. The best course of action is to try to save a portion of the Begonia through propagation (stem/leaf cuttings). Begonia are extremely prone to rot, both bacterial and fungal. They should never sit in water at any point in time.
A tree with a flower on a plant
Remember to ease up on water over the coming months and try and provide a nice warm spot for your indoor Begonia. Many will shy away from cold or suffer if exposed to temperatures below 10C.

South African Begonia

Since we fall within the subtropics it is no surprise that some species naturally occur throughout Southern Africa. In fact, some are even considered medicinal. A good example of this is the large-leaved wild begonia that occurs throughout the Eastern Cape and KZN.
Here is a list of some indigenous Begonia:
Some proprietors:

Plantae Orchids

Plantae Orchids is a specialist nursery dedicated to the growing of orchids and rare & unusual plants. We offer a wide variety of orchid species and orchid hybrids with an emphasis on angraecoids, cattleyas, dendrobiums, oncidiinae phalaenopsis and vandas. Orchid plants can be purchased either at the nursery, at the various shows we attend countrywide or via mail order within South Africa. Our inventory features also exotic plants such as tillandsias and other bromeliads, carnivorous plants, hoyas, ornamental gingers as well as some rare trees and shrubs. We are able to present informative lectures and workshops. An informative monthly newsletter is circulated via e-mail with topical information on orchid growing and notices of shows and open days taking place in that month. You can subscribe to our newsletter by providing us with your details in the space allocated below to the right. The orchid and rare plant nursery is open by appointment as well as on the special open days listed. It would be a shame for you to drive out to the nursery and find we are away on delivery or attending a show. Please phone before you visit if it is not one of the open days listed on the website. Come and enjoy the peace and quiet of the bushveld on one of our open days. You would be able to view a wide range of orchids and other plants, our growing facilities and a variety of exotic cage birds. The garden keeps on expanding and here you would be able to see orchids and other epiphytes growing and flowering in the trees combined with a range of indigenous and exotic plants along the pathways. Wonderful scenery, a wide range of indigenous birds and trees will add to the magic of the visit!

There are several additional nurseries selling hybrids including BromMadness and Plants4Sale, if you fancy yourself some colour this winter.
A close up of a flower

Have a collection at home? Please share your favorites with us in the comments below!

(1) Tian, Daike & Xiao, Yan & Tong, Yi & Fu, Naifeng & Liu, Qingqing & Li, Chun. (2018). Diversity and Conservation of Chinese Wild Begonias. Plant Diversity. 40. 10.1016/j.pld.2018.06.002.
(2) Neale, S., Goodall-Copestake, W., & Kidner, C. A. (2006). The evolution of diversity in Begonia. Floriculture, ornamental and plant biotechnology, 606-611.
(3) Ginori, J., Huo, A., & Warwick, C. R. (2020). A Beginner's Guide to Begonias: Classification and Diversity. EDIS, 2020(1).

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