The transition to begonias

Variegated Impatiens niamniamensis

Following on from yesterday, in the at the turn of the century, interest in impatiens was at its height. Of course, there is a lot more to the genus than busy Lizzies and the Congo cockatoo (above) had long been one of those plats passed from one windowsill gardener to another. It is easily propagated from cuttings and the variegated kind was especially desirable. Unusually, the common name is appropriate because the plant is from tropical Africa including the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The flowers are spectacularly unusual, though not always showy since, as with many impatiens species, they are rather hidden by the foliage. It needs warmth and, in my experience, is frequently ruined by red spider mite. Plant breeders got more adventurous and new forms were introduced though they were never terribly popular. I think the plan was to bring yellow flowers to busy Lizzies but it seemed this was not possible without also bringing the associated flower shapes to the offspring so we never saw a yellow busy Lizzie.

‘Jungle Gold’

But downy mildew put paid to all that and begonias stepped in to plug the gap in our beds and patio pots.

Of course, the semperflorens begonias, known as wax leaf begonias in the USA, had been around for ages. Due to some strange wiring in my brain, these are among the very few plants that I dislike. More strangely, I like the few double kinds, and I like most other begonias – I find them fascinating. But ‘semps’ are not for me. The local town has roundabouts that are planted every summer with mixed semps and I am almost relieved when, as the summer progresses, the chickweed outstrips the begonias and swamps them. Of course, the first frost kills the begonias but the chickweed (Stellaria media) carries on growing and shedding seed so I can’t see anything changing soon.

Semp begonia ‘Doublet Pink’
Begonia ‘Baby Wing White’

One of the developments I really liked was ‘Dragon Wing’ begonias which were like giant semps. they had elongated leaves and grew to at least 60cm high in a season and were really showy. But the demand for novelty led to ‘Baby Wing’ which brought these down in size, which all seems a bit daft.

Begonia ‘Million Kisses Amour’

The tuberous B. boliviensis has arching stems and narrow petals and is probably the the origin of ‘pendulous’ begonias. It may have been used in the highly popular ‘Million Kisses’ and lookalike series.

Most of these new begonias, like most new plants, disappear quickly. If the public don’t like them, or won’t pay for them, garden centres won’t buy them from the nurseries, which won’t buy the plug plants from distributors and they get discontinued. All a far cry from the old days when nurseries propagated their own plants and maintained stock plants.

‘Glowing Embers’

An exception seems to be ‘Glowing Embers’ which is actually a great plant with dark leaves and orange flowers and I am glad to see it is surviving the test of time.


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