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October 2, 2023 by Sue Ercolini - Views: 61

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There is something about gardens and garden friends that leave lasting impressions on us. One such person was my grandmother.   She was a cottage garden genius that made me aware of how breezes, warm sun and pollinators affected the plants.  And she taught me how the sunlight illuminated the many shapes, colors and textures of the foliage.  This brings to mind the Hardy Begonia ´Begonia grandis´ that is loved by bees and adds grace and beautiful color to our gardens. 

S655-1.jpgI was introduced to the hardy begonia about 12 years ago from my garden friend Maggie that I met at the Jockey Lot.  Not a very charming place but definitely a place to meet all kinds of people and gardeners!  She is a Master Gardener and plant wizard that can dice, propagate, and root just about anything.  She gave me my first hardy begonia and I was left in a state of awe. I can´t remember where I finally located her plant, but the hardy begonias soon found their way into my garden and have been multiplying and spreading ever since.  And, in our area they come back every year!


They grow from tuberous roots and have fleshy succulent stems.  Their leaves are 3 to 6 inches long with green on top and red highlights underneath.  The flowers are pink and clustered in loose bunches with deep pink stalks (there is a white flower cultivar of hardy begonia called ´Alba´). They bloom from July/August into November depending on the first frost.  The hardy begonia is native to China and Japan.  It is an upright plant growing to 2 to 3 feet in part to full shade.  Ideally it likes organic, moist soil, but my experience is that it grows anywhere in shade and pops up in sunny locations, too.  It will spread all over the place but is easily removed by yanking their fragile stems.  However, I rarely find it in a place I don't want it.  It has successfully spread to the outer edge of my bog garden between my hostas and ferns, and blooms its heart out as the other plants are starting to die back.  Since it dies back completely…you need to remember where you planted it.  

The esteemed late garden writer Allen Lacy (1935 to 2015) wrote many garden books along with a garden column in the Wall Street Journal.  And was a big fan of Begonia grandis, but it was not the flowers or the shape of the leaves that endeared it to him.  He particularly loved the undersides of the leaves and the bright red color.  He planted them in his own garden in a spot where they would catch the light of the setting sun from behind.   Lacy wrote in the New York Times that the leaves backlit by the rays of the setting sun “is a sight that is one of the epiphanies of autumn”.

S655-3.jpgS655-4.jpgIn the proper growing conditions, hardy begonia will thrive with minimal gardening effort.  Plant it in dappled or full shade…late evening light is good.  The soil should be rich and moist but with good drainage…too wet can cause root rot.  Once established hardy begonia will tolerate dry spells, but in general it likes to be well watered.  Add some compost in the spring to get your begonia off to a good start.  I cover them with a plant cover in spring when there is a late frost to keep from losing the young plants.  Deadhead spent flowers to encourage continuous blooms from July to frost.  When the plant starts to deteriorate, resist the urge to clean up or you may lose the ‘bulblets’ to the trash or compost pile.  

One of the hardy begonia´s most endearing talents is its readiness to naturalize.  It will grow from seeds, but more commonly it produces tiny bulblets in the axils of its upper leaves.  These bulblets will eventually drop to the ground and produce new clones from the parent plant.  I pass these leaves along to garden friends to place in their garden.  Find the right shaded spot and press lightly into the soil.  And ´voila´ next year you will have a whole Begonia grandis colony!

Now when the late afternoon September sun warms my face and the early morning breezes wake me up, I´m carried back to my childhood, walking in the garden beside my grandmother.  These memories of love and sharing her garden are one of the reasons for who I am today.  I only wish that she was still here to enjoy my garden and pass on to her one of these charming begonias!■


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