Although this may look like the skin of some hirsute monster or a lizard that needs a shave, this is actually a begonia. Begonias are fascinating plants and even though the common Semperflorens begonias are among the very few plants that I really can’t bear, almost all the rest of the 1800 species (yes 1800!) are plants that I would love to grow and possess – and that doesn’t even begin to explore the thousands of hybrids. It is difficult make meaningful generalisations about begonias since they may be upright, pendent, hardy, so tender they have to be grown in terrariums with high humidity, tiny or higher than a human, tuberous or not tuberous, fragrant and they have flowers in almost every shade except blue.
What is remarkable is the way that the flowers are so alike in every species and easily recognisable, even though they don’t look much like many of the big, tuberous hybrids we all know (and love?). It is the leaves that make begonias so special. The typical begonia leaf has a lop-sided shape – almost like an angel-wing, which I know is nonsense but hey- it’s Christmas! But nothing about begonias is typical and the leaves vary hugely and can be divided into leaflets or peltate and colours vary from green to bright red and silver or brown. The most beautiful of all probably belong to the plants we call Rex begonias. More on begonias in a few days but, for today, one specific species.
This shot, as we pull out, may be easier to recognise because this is one of the most distinctive of all begonias. Begonia masoniana, commonly called the iron cross begonia because of the distinctive leaf marking, is one of the species called a rhizomatous begonia because the stem creeps over the soil forming an ever-expanding clump with leaves on individual petioles growing from the upper side and stems of flowers that are slightly taller than the leaves, which form a clump about 30-40cm high. The leaves can reach about 20cm across in adult plants and they have a marvelously puckered surface with raised pimples between the veins, each with a single red hair.
Begonias are found in many places throughout the world (tropical and subtropical Asia, Africa and Central and South America) and this species was discovered and introduced to cultivation in the UK by Maurice Mason in 1952. (Leonard) Maurice Mason (1912-93) was a Norfolk farmer but also a great amateur gardener whose garden at Fincham Hall was one of the country’s great plant collections with rare and wonderful tender and hardy plants. A holder of the RHS’ Victoria Medal of Honour, he was famous for his exhibits at Chelsea Flower Shows. It seems that the precise origin of this plant is obscure but it is thought to be Chinese in origin (some references say India). Maurice Mason brought it back from Singapore however and it was several years later that it was decided that it was a true species and not a hybrid and it was named (after him) and described in 1959 and soon became famous for its distinctive leaves and – potentially – considerable beauty.
The bright green leaves with their distinctive ‘iron cross’ need fairly high humidity to keep their fresh appearance and prevent browning around the edges. Like hostas, any deficiencies in the leaf freshness show up immediately! In addition, this species is vulnerable to the bane of any begonia – mildew. And like most begonias, it likes to be moderately moist but prefers a well-drained compost and will show its disgust if the compost is waterlogged at any time, especially if it is too cold as well (10c is the absolute minimum). It prefers good light but not full sun and is happier in a shady place.
When it is content it will produce red, hairy stems of white flowers, pink in bud, with red hairs on the outer surface of the two outer petals (more of that stuff soon). These are moderately pretty but not the real reason for growing the plant. Like most begonias, the best way to propagate this is by leaf cuttings.