Working in the retail horticulture industry for the past twenty three years has taught me almost everything that I know about plants. With no formal training, I confess to not being an expert in any particular area but more of a ‘jack of all, master of none’. However, being at the same establishment for that period of time has given me an interesting insight into the world of selling plants and indeed peoples buying habits. Among the things that have become apparent to me is the fact that gardening is firmly connected to fashion. By this I mean that in certain areas crops waver in and out of popularity just like flares, neon t-shirts and beards.
To me, the areas that have been influenced most by this ‘fashion’ variable are the patio and bedding plants. When I started as a tender teen eager to earn petrol money, Busy Lizzies were just starting to gain ground. We grew hundreds of boxes of coleus and the geraniums were definitely the patio kings. Now busies have faded out a after a massive boom.
The one species that has been more consistent, in some form or another, are begonias. Begonia Semperflorens have been regarded by many as a dull uninspiring bedding plant, but the fact remains that it is probably one of the best performing and reliable bedders. It is true that the colour range is limited but when planted en-mass it is hard to beat. Resilient to partial shade, pests, viruses and moderate levels of dryness it packs a combination of attributes that other bedding have trouble keeping up with.
Other factors refuelling this revival include more reliable strains, and the availability of separate colour seedlings, this has allowed us to grow boxes of one colour to maintain colour schemes. Also, more recently cultivars such as “Whopper” and “Dragon Wings” have been introduced. They have bridged the gap between bedding and patio types; it is a bit like having begonias on steroids, adding an element that the traditional plants didn’t have, height! People have re-discovered bedding begonias and have willingly adopted the new cousins.
When I joined the retail horticultural industry the selection of container begonias was limited and consisted of non-stop upright and non-stop trailing. Gone are the days when most nurseries had to grow tuberous begonias from the tuber. Gone are the days when your colour choices only ranged from red, white, pink and yellow. Now there is an almost bewildering array of colours, foliage and flower types to choose from. The plain, old style non-stops remain very popular to this day with their big double flowers but now there are a lot of different colours and cultivars. Begonia “New Star” series and “Mocca” series are more recent strains of upright non-stop which have improvements on foliage colour. “Mocca” has bronzed leaves, and improvements have been made to its habit with “New Star” offering perfect rounded flowers on compact upright foliage. Both are stunning in pots on their own or in combination schemes. Strains such as Begonia “Picotee” also have a neat habit coupled with amazing bicolour flowers, some with piping around the edge of the petals.
The basket gardener now has an amazing selection of trailing and semi-trailing species to pick from. In my opinion this specific area is where the humble trailing begonia has really made leaps forward both in breeding and reliability. Trailing non-stops used to be the type of plant that only an experienced gardener could grow successfully as they could be brittle and uneven in growth. Now the breeders have worked wonders. One of my customer’s favourite newer arrivals has been Begonia “Glowing Embers“. With its stunning single orange flowers and dark foliage it looks fabulous with silver foliage plants such as dichondra or on its own. Three to four plants in a fourteen inch basket will see a lovely rounded display covered in flowers. I think that I may have found a contender for ‘My new favourite’ in Begonia “Beauvillea” series with its amazing five petaled, large single flowers and dark foliage. I will be trying it in my garden this year. For something with a stronger trailing habit you need look no further than “Million Kisses”, “Illumination“, “SuperCascade” or “Apricot Shades” which will hide the basket or pot with a torrent of colour. There are a number of varieties that intended for use as purely foliage contrast plants. Begonias like “Gryphon” are useful for contemporary planting projects or simply to provide a foil for bright flowers.
I didn’t want this blog to be a big long list of names, I could have easily done that, but I really wanted to try and point out, from a retailers view point, that the begonia revival is fully under way. However, I do feel that they never really went away. Begonias have moved with times and their reliability has meant that at no point have they disappeared completely. Begonias, in all of their incarnations, are great plants that deliver on their promises. Give them a try and you will not be disappointed.