Plant of the Week
Latin: Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana
Along a moist, shaded path in my garden grows the fall-flowering hardy begonia. Freeze tolerance is a rare thing amongst begonias, but this East Asian native never got the memo.
Hardy begonia, Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana, is a 2-foot tall, cane-forming begonia that flowers from August until frost in Arkansas. It's winterhardy statewide, surviving outdoors as far north as St. Louis and even further with some winter mulch.
Leaves are olive-green on top and pinkish below and marked with prominent carmine red veins. The 6- to 8-inch long leaves have the typical asymmetrical base found in all begonias.
The soft, pink flowers are produced in open, pendant panicles at the ends of the cane in late summer. Both male and female flowers are produced in the same cluster. The female flowers have a large, triangular pod beneath the two pairs of large and small tepals. The male flowers lack the pod.
This begonia wants to survive, so it has devised several means of spread. In addition to the abundance of tiny seeds produced, the hardy begonia also produces pea-sized tubericles at the base of each leaf. These teardrop-shaped propagules appear in early fall and dislodge freely to scatter about the garden, starting new plants in spring. Walnut-sized tubers form at the base of the stem at ground level. These tubers are capable of surviving freezing conditions without injury.
This old fashioned plant was introduced from China in 1804 by William Kerr, the first professional plant collector sent to China by London's Kew Gardens. Kerr, who spent eight years in China, was only allowed access to the western trading ports in the vicinity of the southern port city of Canton (now called Guangzhou).
Kerr introduced a number of plants into western gardens including Nandina, Chinese juniper, tiger lilies, Pieris, Pittosporum and a host of others. Another of his introductions, Kerria japonica, was named in his honor. But, apparently he had too much time on his hands for he seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd. Though only hinted at by officials in China, Kerr seems to have become a too-frequent visitor to the infamous opium dens of the region.
The hardy begonia is called the "autumn crabapple" in China because the pink blossoms are reminiscent of the spring blooms of crabapples. It's considered a flower of romance in its native land. An ancient legend tells us it sprung magically from the ground from tears shed by a Chinese maiden suffering from unrequited love.
Hardy begonias are easy to grow in a shaded, reasonably moist site. Like other begonias, they do best in an organic-rich soil that has good internal drainage. They grow in drier sites but only spreads into areas with moisture levels to their liking. Though it will spread about, hardy begonia lacks the aggressive ways of a weed. Any unwanted plants can be easily pulled and discarded.
New plants can be started from seed but delay sewing until March to ensure seedlings develop under long day conditions of spring. If started earlier, the seedlings will initiate a tuber and stop making stem growth.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - October 7, 2005
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.