Good to Grow: Heaven sent angel wing begonias

As published in the Charleston Gazette.

Referencing the American Begonia Society, there are over 1,000 named species in the begonia genus or family, and they are often divided into seven different categories. Some are much more common than others, so for the sake of this column, let’s focus on two of the well-known types — cane and wax.

The cane begonia gets its name from the straight stems that grow tall and have pronounced joints, like a cane or bamboo plant. You might be familiar with the popular angel wing or dragon wing varieties.

Often, these two names are used interchangeably. Really, they are similar, but they are different plants.

Both varieties of the cane have fabulous, large, glossy leaves that resemble wings. The foliage is as beautiful as the cluster of red blooms that hang like pendants and continue blooming from spring till autumn.

The difference is in the spots. No really, spots. Angel wing leaves have white spots; dragon wing leaves do not.

The dragon wing begonia is a cross between the angel wing and the wax begonia. I have these planted in a large container on my back porch. They never fail to grab my attention and make me smile.

There, on my covered back porch, they grow full and bloom like crazy. The plants are happy in this spot because of the protection from harsh afternoon sun. I water them often, keeping the soil moist but not wet.

You will often find cane begonias potted in containers but, if used as a bedding plant, make sure there is good drainage — these plants do not like wet feet. Try for morning sun and a bit of afternoon shade.

The dragon wing can be a big plant. In the container, mine are well over 20 inches tall and grow to create a robust display of green leaves and red blooms.

For me, the wax begonia is an old-fashioned plant that reminds me of the front porches of my childhood. Although this can be an indoor/outdoor plant, I treat them as annuals and pot them every spring. To bring them indoors requires the right sunlight and humidity levels, plus giving them extra care as they adjust to moving inside in the fall.

It’s no surprise the name for this plant comes from the waxy appearance of the leaves, which are almost a bronze or mahogany color, and smaller and rounder than the angel or dragon wing. The wax begonia is a mounding plant, meaning it won’t spread, and it can grow to be 10 inches high.

I use them in my window boxes and other pots around the yard. The waxy leaf texture and deep color adds interest against the bright green foliage of other plants.

Although I grow these in containers, I often see them spaced out as border planting in gardens. They can create a very sculptured or architectural pattern when used this way — just don’t plant them too far apart.

You may be wondering about shade versus sun when planted in gardens. The bronzed leaf plants can hold up to sunny spots, although they still like a bit of shade.

The wax begonias can be found in single- or double-bloom varieties. Double-bloom means it has an extra layer of petals, which makes the blooms appear fuller. Bloom colors are pink (my favorite), red and white. There’s something about the sweet pink blooms and the dark leaves — I just love it.

As with the angel and dragon wings, there is no need to deadhead the blooms; the plants automatically drop the spent flowers and continue to produce new ones.

As you are finishing your summer containers and we move into July, I ask you to go a bit retro and give begonias a try.

Speaking of retro and thinking of nostalgic, old-fashioned joys: Forgive me as I stray off topic and mention the joy of stepping outside on a summer evening. In between the rains and the fact that weeds are multiplying overnight, I hope you will take a moment to step outside.

Sunsets are glorious, but there is something about grabbing the pup and stepping outside. This time of year, in the evening, we are greeted by a thousand sparkling lights. As these lights move around the yard and fly through the air, I am filled with contentment, and for a few moments the long hours of the day wash away.

Lightening bugs, fireflies — whatever you call them — are so pretty with so many memories of running around chasing the lights. My wish for you: Get outside and make some memories.