By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club
It's 'who you know' that's important in botanical nomenclature.
Potted cane begonias (Begonia x coralline) produce profuse flowers that hang like chandelier earrings in large, drooping clusters adding showy splashes of color to a partially shaded garden. Begonias are heavy bloomers when they are in bright, indirect light. The most popular of the canes is the angel wing pictured here. It has opposite, dark green leaves with pointed tips that look a bit like heavenly wings.
The name Begonia comes from Charles Plumier, a famed French Franciscan monk vegetarian and botanist. It honors Michel Begon, who was the expedition organizer for a French 1690 collecting trip to the Americas. He was also the commander of the Port of Marseille and eventually the Governor of Haiti. He recommended Plumier to King Louis IV for which Plumier immortalized him in begonia's scientific name.
Landscapers think of begonias as 'gratitude' and surely the begonia rewards the gardener with flowers galore. Or they may remember the Hunter and Garcia song sung by the Grateful Dead, "Scarlet Begonias," that were worn in a woman's hair.
Rochefort in France was famed for its collection imported exotic plants during the 17th and 18th centuries, especially coffee. (It is now known as Conservatoire du Begonia.) Plumier also identified fuchsia, magnolia, plumeria and documented hundreds of others in beautiful drawings on his three expeditions to the French Antilles. Reproductions of his drawings are still sold worldwide.
Gardeners need friends to propagate the cane begonia, as they have been hybrid so much that they will not grow true to seed. Growers such as Irene Nuss and Belva Kusler have produced hundreds and hundreds of hybrids. The genus begonia has over 1,500 members. Propagation is done with stem cuttings containing four or five nodules. Treat the open stem with root hormone and put it directly in potting soil.
When potting a larger cane begonia use a large, heavy vessel as cane begonias can grow to be 10-feet tall and have large root systems that will tip over a smaller pot. They like a heavy mix of acidic soil, hence the pot instead of our highly alkaline ground soil. Place the plants low into the container so that all of the nodules that might produce more roots or plants are underground. Angel wing canes will produce fibrous roots.
Water well in a pot with good drainage holes, but let the roots dry out between re-watering. Be careful not to overwater as cane begonias resent soggy bottoms and will turn on a gardener in a beat of their heart. If the leaves turn yellow or drop off, you have watered too much. If the leaves turn brown there is not enough humidity, set them in a tray with stones and put water in the tray. (Generally, this is not a problem in Key West.) Avoid getting water on the leaves, as they will burn. Thin fertilizer by half or more and apply weekly to obtain the best of their luscious flower growth. Like orchids, water weakly, and on a weekly basis.
Although not often bothered with insects, mealy bugs and aphids can attack them.
Use soap, oil and alcohol mixed in water as insecticide.
The begonias are monoecious with male and female flowers occurring on the same plant. The male flower has numerous stamens and the female has a large inferior ovary and several twisted stigmas.
Canes are easy to grow and reward the gardener with copious blooms. They grow tough stems that look like bamboo. Single branches have a smooth surface. They should be pruned in the spring but in this climate can be trimmed anytime. They can be cut back very hard, which will encourage new basal shoots. During the year, pinching off canes will also promote new basal growth. Leggy or brown stems should be cut off to keep the plant bushy and beautiful.
Leaves on canes vary in size shape and coloration extraordinarily. That is because begonias grow all over the world and all of them can be hybridized together. It makes for a mish-mash world family that is still One Begonia Family.
The Key West Garden Club's Spring Luncheon is at Square One from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, May 5. Tickets ($30) are available at the Garden Club or from Donna Froelich 294-5136.
The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, learn to propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. until noon on Mondays.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.