Hardy Begonia collection at OpdeHaar

Begonia grandis
Begonia grandis

This page contains information on the hardy begonia collection at OpdeHaar

Begonia grandis hardiness

Begonia grandis ssp. Evansiana is fairly widespread throughout China and Japan. Its common name of “Hardy begonia” sums up the major claim for its inclusion in the hardy exotic hall of fame. During most winters it survives very well in our gardens in The Netherlands without any special protection. However, I think I would cover it in dried leaves if temperatures dipped below – 10oC or so. 

This hardy begonia thrives in quite deep shade. Although moisture is preferred it can cope with dry conditions and, once established, a fair level of sun. It is therefore an excellent woodland plant. When the first frosts arrive, it dies off above ground but the tuber rootstock lives on. Eventually new growth emerges the following spring. Reports on the Internet hint that this emergence is “late”. In my experience, I find that it is the extent of exposure to sun which is a major factor here. In heavy shade, it can be towards the end of April before growth is seen. But, even after a normal winter, there are signs of life in a sunnier position in early April. It could possibly be related to the extent to which the soil has been warmed.

Begonia grandis – spectacular red leaves

As the photos illustrate, Begonia grandis is instantly recognisable as a begonia. Many gardeners may just walk past it thinking that it is a pot plant which has been pushed in for the summer to fill in a space. Nothing could be more wrong. Stop and look more closely! If it can be arranged, try and position it so that the spectacular red undersides of the leaves are visible. A side view of the plant or looking up at it on a slope are two ways of achieving this.

Seedlings and bulbils

As growth gets underway, a crop of little seedlings will appear. These can be potted up and will grow away very easily. The seedlings develop from bulbils which form in the leaf axils before the leaves die in the autumn. Bulbils are nascent tubers. They germinate very easily and provide a straightforward means of vegetatively bulking up all the different Begonia grandis cultivars.

By this time, you are probably wondering where “the catch” is in this story. I can honestly say that I haven’t managed to find it yet! This is a wonderful shade plant and it isn’t at all difficult either to propagate or grow. Furthermore, it isn’t irritatingly invasive although it provides offspring enough (from bulbils) for bulking up a group. It is a mystery to me why hardy begonia’s are not available in all the garden centres.

Normal flower colour is pink but there is also a white or “Alba” form.

For readers interested in gaining more botanical insights into Begonia grandis, the Pacific Bulb Society is a good reference source.

Begonia grandis cultivars and sports

Over the years, plant hunters and the occurrence of sports in nurseries have given rise to a variety of interesting Begonia grandis cultivars. An article by Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries provides a comprehensive summary of the situation of what is available to the gardener.

Heim’s article is based on a talk given to the US Begonia Society. It complements a somewhat earlier blog by John Boggan which provides additional insights and completes an instructive review of hardy begonia. These articles will bring the gardener up to speed on what is going on in this sector of the plant world. 

Begonia grandis “Evansiana”, Begonia grandis ssp holostyla and Begonia grandis ssp sinensis

Begonia grandis "Evanisana"
Begonia grandis “Evansiana”

The Flora of China recognises 3 subspecies in Begonia grandis. “Evansiana” is Begonia grandis ssp. grandis – a plant with rather sturdy stems and a solid abaxial leaf pigmentation of broadly oval leaves. The other two variants (Begonia grandis ssp holostyla and Begonia grandis ssp sinensis)  both have longer and weaker/thinner stems. Begonia grandis ssp holostyla has triangular-ovate leaves. From a gardener’s perspective it seems to have been created especially for the “Nanjiang Silver” variant. In Begonia grandis ssp sinensis the red pigmentation is generally concentrated along leaf veins and sometimes stems. The majority of the Chinese B.grandis introductions fall into this subspecies. It goes without saying that this is only an extremely superficial look at the taxonomy. However, it alerts one to the nomenclature which is appearing in nursery catalogues and on plant labels.

Begonia Grandis at OpdeHaar

Begonia grandis in a raised bed
Begonia grandis in a raised bed

We have been growing several hardy Begonia grandis cultivars for several years. When we came across new variants we try to purchase them out of curiosity. Left to their own devices they bulk up largely thanks to bulbils. This vegetative propagation preserves the integrity of the variant. Whereas with seed propagation there is a risk of cross-pollination when different cultivars are in close proximity to each other. This isn’t a problem in the garden. However, it can in theory introduce a bit of confusion in the nursery trade. Cross-pollination is maybe the explanation why, when looking around nursery beds, occasionally one or two plants seem to have numerous subtle differences from the surrounding stock. That said, from a gardening perspective, if the difference is an improvement, then it is worthwhile. 

Blister or reflective variegation

Many plant species have varied or variegated leaves and this is usually caused by variations in the concentration of chlorophyll. However, that is NOT the case in Begonia grandis species. Recent work in Taiwan has shown that the leaf structure will trap air. Curiously enough, that gives an impression of white/silver variation.

While variegated leaves offer the gardener fun options, nature always has a reason for something. In this case, air in the top of a plant acts as a protection mechanism against sunburn due to excess sun. It’s called “Blister of Reflective Variegation”. Georgina Reid summarizes the reasons for the variation. “The unpigmented top layer of the leaf is separated from the pigmented bottom layer by an air pocket that reflects light and creates silver metallic patterns. These may be possible dots of blemishes or may run along blades of edges. Reflective variegation is part of a plant’s composition, so these crazy plants can be reproduced by seed, cuttings”.

Important here is that, the air confinement originated in the cultivar, the pattern of the variation is form-fixed. Herein lies a possible explanation for the differences and variation in the white/silver variegated Begonia grandis species.

Among the Begonia grandis varieties, there are several with this white/silver variation on the upperside of the leaf.

Begonia “Nanjiang Silver”

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This hardy begonia variant was collected by Dave Demers in Sichuan.  The botanist Riz Reyes introduced it in the USA as Begonia “Nanjiang Silver”. It displays a more extensive leaf variegation. Look at a leaf of “Nanjiang Silver” from different angles and notice how the variegation seems to change. A similar phenomenon occurs when you walk around a plant. There are reports that the variegation decreases as the season progresses. I am still bulking up my own stock from bulbils to comment on this. My tentative observation is that the contrast associated with the variegation possibly appears to fade somewhat. The photo illustrates this.

Begonia “Sparkle and Shine”

Some leaf sports of B.grandis combine decorative upper leaf surfaces with an earlier appearance in late April. Begonia “Sparkle and Shine”, another hardy begonia is an example of this. It was christened by Russell Gardens in the USA.  Their description of “Sparkle and Shine” below says it all:

“Begonia grandis ssp.evansiana `Sparkle and Shine’, white, 15″, September-October. House cross (happened on the farm without any help, just “bulbils mixing it up” if ya know what I mean?). The color of an Ox’s blood fills the backs of these wide HEART-shaped leaves and a PROMINENT SILVER-overlay adorns the fronts! They SPARKLE and SHINE in the dappled sunlight. Shade. They colonize by bulbils so FALL and SPRING clean-ups will not allow this to happen.”

In contrast to “Nanjiang Silver”, early observations indicate that the leaf pattern retention (i.e. spots) is much higher onSparkle & Shine“.  Differences in light intensity do not appear to be key to these differences/changes.

Sparkle & Shine” spreads effectively from bulbil distribution in our experience. In 2020 I harvested and pricked out bulbils in seed trays. (It is noteworthy that a small percentage of the bulbils gave rise to plants lacking the leaf variegation.) The following photographs illustrate the patterns on the upper surfaces of the leaves. It is somewhat reminiscent of the popular house plant, Begonia maculata.

Begonia “Silver Splendor”

As you would expect from a renowned nursery, one line of Terra Nova’s thinking was how to incorporate the hardiness gene into the decorative begonia varieties associated with pot plants or annual bedding displays. Begonia “Silver Splendor” ( PP 21946 ) is an early example of this line of thought.

Inspection of Silver Splendor” indicates that the silver colour is also most likely a result of blister variegation. In fact it is more intense than that of “Nanjiang Silver”. Indeed, the extent of leaf colouration remains both constant and extends to well over 90% of the adaxial leaf surface. This is consistent with the Taiwan findings that the efficiency of photosynthesis is not impaired by air entrapment.  We are wondering why the leaf patterns on the two variegated Begonia grandis cultivars do not seem to be constant. This could provide an interesting extension to the Taiwan findings.

“Silver Splendor” is a very decorative foliage plant which emerges late in Spring or even as late as early summer. However, it persists until the autumn frosts. It can easily be combined with early spring flowering plants whose foliage is gone by the time the Begonia appears.

The late emergence is also a characteristic of B.taliensis which is the pollen parent of the Terra Nova hybrid. This is about a month later than I expect to see B.grandis or B.sinensis varieties awakening from winter dormancy.

Colour variation in hardy Begonia’s

For completeness it is worth noting that there are two more mechanisms which cause colour variegation in hardy Begonia leaves. The vivid colours so characteristic of Begonia rex houseplants and the deep red-purple on the underside or abaxial leaf surface of Begonia grandis are associated with anthocyanins. These are the same chemicals which are responsible for the vivid autumn colours in some deciduous forests. 

Anthocyanin pigmentation

Quite a few woodland plants found in shaded areas have a heavily anthocyanin pigmented abaxial leaf surface. It is often stated that this reflects light back through the leaf. Thus giving the chlorophyll a second chance to utilize it in photosynthesis. American botanists recently set out to test this hypothesis and found it not to be the case. However, their conclusion amounted to not knowing what the function of the pigmentation is. Nevertheless their paper provides a nice summary of the various proposals of what the role of anthocyanin might be.

The red/purple anthocyanin pigmentation occurs in random areas on the under surface of Begonia taliensis leaves. This generally escapes notice. However, it is this abaxial pigmentation which causes the dark leaf mottling when plants are viewed from above. It is quite possible that the degree and extent of anthocyanin pigmentation will vary in different populations of B.taliensis. This is also the case with B. grandis variants. Indeed it would be interesting to see if selective propagation could maximise/enhance this decorative feature. 

Some Begonia, notably B.pavonina, develop a blue iridescence in low-light conditions.  This is indicative of the formation of highly uniform structures within the leaves which scatter light in a very regular manner. Bristol University originally discovered this and it has been further elaborated on by Chinese botanists.

Iridescence and blue leaves

Interest in trying to decide to what extent or if B. “Nanjiang Silver” andSparkle & Shinereally differ from each other prompted me to plant several plants in my shady Begonia garden in the summer of 2021. The big discovery was just how prolifically both plants produced offspring and the profusion of dots and streaks has really left me thinking that I need to repeat the exercise with the varieties much farther apart than my Begonia patch allowed. As I’ve said, this little garden is shaded by surrounding trees throughout the day and a curving path permits one to look at the plants from different angles and while doing this, it struck me forcibly just how blue the leaves could appear when viewed from certain angles. Shifting one’s position, this blue iridescence is no longer apparent as the photographs below indicate. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not observable with other hardy Begonia species or hybrids in my experience.

(The photos above were taken at the same time with the same camera settings and no “photoshopping”)

The explanation for the blue iridescence in Begonia was given by a team working under the direction of Heather Whitney who found that a level of structuring in the leaf optimized energy delivery by photosynthesis in the classic blue cultivar Begonia pavonina which needs to survive in very low light conditions on the forest floor. The Internet reveals considerably more detail on the phenomenon and it is noteworthy that Patrick Blanc has published a beautiful collection of photos which includes blue iridescence on the leaf of a Begonia grandis “Silver Spotted” which is clearly what we have observed (see middle of the page in Blanc’s article).  While Blanc’s photographs show quite clearly that iridescence occurs in a variety of Begonia species, it isn’t a visual feature of all Begonia cultivars. This prompts one to speculate on what is special about the leaves of B.grandis cultivars such asNanjiang Silveras opposed to, say,Evansiana” which both display intense anthocyanin pigmentation on the underside of the leaf. Leaves of “Nanjiang Silver” are both thicker and contain entrapped air i.e. blister pigmentation. The patterns of this pigmentation seem structured and not random when judged purely visually and it prompts one to wonder if the structuring which is manifested by iridescence is also associated with the fairly consistent pattern of the blister pigmentation. This is a garden website, so enough said !! 

Shade and Iridescence

Begonia Nanjiang silver showing blue iridescenceThe detection of the iridescence phenomenon in Begonia grandis cultivars such asNanjiang Silver” is so evident that I asked myself why I had not noticed it before either in our own garden or in the collections of professional nurserymen. In fact, I deliberately went in search of “blue leaves” and really failed to find them at a couple of Dutch nurseries where light levels are fairly high and not dissimilar to those in my own greenhouse where plants were propagated. The clue to a possible explanation is provided by this photograph in our own garden  which reveals incredibly blue young leaves ofNanjiang Silver” which are developing in really deep shade thrown by overhanging larger leaves. Some leaves were removed to provide a clearer photo. In short, it appears that the iridescence phenomenon is enhanced as the intensity of shade around the developing leaf increases and this in turn implies that the leaf structures  giving rise to the iridescence increase along with the increasing shade. While this hypothesis fits the observations, it depends very much on the ability of the plant to modify its leaf structure to suit its surroundings and fortunately the studies in a Bristol report that this is the case. In basic gardener’s language, if you want to optimise the visual blue iridescence in B.grandis cultivars with leaf blister pigmentation, grow and propagate them in shade. I now need to explore these findings further!

Begonia taliensis, Begonia petadifida 

The emphasis of this short review is on B.grandis and its cultivars. However other candidates for use or for trialling in the garden are starting to appear in specialist nurseries. I am growing B.taliensis and B.petadifida quite happily in the Central Netherlands. In the UK, specialist nurseries such as Pan-Global plants and Crug Farm list numerous Begonia species with various degrees of cold hardiness.  Finally, Dan Hinkley’s Windcliff Plants in Indianola ( USA) invariably has a tempting list of Begonia on their plant list – search or scroll down to Begonia.

Begonia Torsa

Begonia grandis is one of the parents of this large-leaved hybrid originating in Bhutan. The identity of the parent which contributed the large leaf to its progeny is reportedly unknown. I obtained two Begonia X “Torsa” plants in 2021 and planted them out in a sheltered and shady area of the garden in that summer and harvested 10 bulbils in late november before taking the precaution of covering the tubers with a mulch of leaves for winter protection after Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries stated that the hybrid didn’t survive winters in Oregon. This care and attention was not necessary as the photograph taken almost exactly a year later illustrates because there is a healthy crop of Torsa progeny spread around the parent plants which I think must be from bulbils because I do not recall seeing any flowers in 2021. Bulbils overwintered in compost in the greenhouse all germinated in the Spring. The large Ligularia-like leaves are the undoubted feature of this hybrid but the red-purple anthocyanin abaxial pigmentation is restricted to the leaf veins rather than the whole leaf surface as is the case in in B.grandis “Evansiana”.                                                                    

Like many hardy Begonia, Torsa is not an early riser from its winter sleep and don’t expect to see much before the latter half of May when both the parent plants and bulbils start into growth. A dry spring will prolong this dormancy. I haven’t been able to find anything in the literature about the formation or viability of any seed from Torsa – it could, of course be a sterile hybrid. That said, I have planted it close by B.grandis “Nanjiang Silver” in the hope that something might appear with large, blister-variegated leaves. Our Torsa started to flower in mid-September alongside flowering Nanjiang Silver so I live in hope, helped along with me as a pollinator. In all honesty I have to admit that my enthusiasm for attempting to try creating this hybrid hasn’t been shared by more practised nurserymen to whom I’ve broached the idea. Bhutan is a small Himalayan country bordering India in the south and Tibet in the north with Nepal to the west. After WWII it escaped the focussed attention that plant hunters and botanists gave to other areas of Asia until recently and several discoveries of new (hardy) Begonia species are reported from here and Arunchal Pradesh.

 

Chinese Begonias & hybrids 

It won’t come as a big surprise to learn that Chinese botanists have identified and are growing numerous Begonia species. Many of these will or are likely to display (a degree of) winter hardiness. There is a useful summary under the heading “Begonia ” in Flora of ChinaA publication “Diversity and conservation of Chinese wild begonias” provides interesting insights into the wide variety of Begonia species. Of particular interest, are the comments from these expert Chinese botanists on the “Morphological diversity”. (See section 1.3 of the paper on Chinese begonia). They highlight the diversity of leaf type, colour and variegation and the paper contains excellent illustrative colour photographs. However, their comments on natural hybrids provide food for thought. Particularly when bearing in mind the variations in Begonia grandis and the deliberate crosses conducted by Terra Nova Nurseries.

In summary, they point out that different species in the same locality do form hybrids. Indeed they claim that B.helmslyana, B.longifolia and B.palmata are doing this particularly frequently. However, most of these hybrids are F1 in character. Therefore their continued existence depends on the proximity of the parent plants being preserved. In short, the hybrids are sterile and do not self-propagate; much like Begonia “Silver Splendor”.  Dan Heims reports that although numerous interesting hybrids with B.grandis had been produced, at the time of his report, they lacked the hardiness gene.

Hardy Begonia hybridization

A publication entitledOccurrence and characteristics of natural hybridization in Begonia in China” by Daike Tian and coworkers is interesting.  The article tabulates the hybrids they have identified and lists the parent species of the hybrids and other useful data. 

It is noteworthy that B.grandis does not occur at all frequently as a parent species in the hybrids. This and other work start to create a feeling that maybe Begonia somehow have a facility to genetically adapt to a location provided there is consistency in the environment. I’m maybe totally wrong on this but it is a point for discussion.  

Dan Hinkley introduced a sterile F1 hybrid from a collection in Central Taiwan in 1999 as Begonia X chungii DJHT99168. This has been shown to be a hybrid between Begonia palmata and B. longifolia. (See the article: “Begonia x chungii (Begoniaceae) – a new natural hybrid in Taiwan“). It is the ideal plant for gardeners who regard the self-propagation of B.grandis by bulbils as a bit of a nuisance.  However it is reportedly very easy to propagate vegetatively. It is offered for sale by several nurseries in USA but it is harder to find in Europe and UK.  This is a shame because it is very richly flowering in the autumn season. Furthermore it has proven to be hardy here in the central Netherlands over the last 3 years or so.

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