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Home > Begonian > Volume 57 (November/December 1990, page 223)

Begonias and a Florida Freeze
by H. Alton Lee

The image of Florida as a tropical, horticultural paradise is quickly dispelled for the gardener who decides to take up rake and hoe here. Our state seems to have some of the wildest, most unpredictable weather in the country.

Saturday, December 23, 1989 was a day not to be forgotten throughout Florida. In our community just southwest of St. Petersburg, we had the unprecedented "distinction" of cold rain, sleet, and snow flurries all within a period of about six hours.

Then came them freeze. Christmas dawned with 25 degrees; the temperature had been below freezing since midnight. Sun finally arrived, but we also had a wind worthy of Maine in deep winter. Florida temperatures were in the mid-teens in Orlando, 20 degrees in Tampa Bay; even fabled Miami was down to 30 in the city and below that in outlying areas.

Within days the temperature was more or less back to normal for late December, a 50-70 degree range. But the damage was done. Florida looked much like Vietnam must have looked after Agent Orange. As this in being written, in late July (1990), recovery is barely starting; some plants won't come back.

But there have some pleasant surprises. In an area facing north but sheltered by a greenhouse wall on the west and south, begonias were clustered in pots on the ground and hanging in baskets. Heavy blankets were hung and thrown over this area and removed several days after the worst of the cold had passed.

Apparently devastated were Begonias egregia, 'Philfera', paulensis, 'Midnight Sun', 'Venetian Red', 'Merry Christmas', and 'Mumtaz'. All except B. 'Midnight Sun' came back. B. 'Merry Christmas' was the slowest; not until June did it get serious about resurrecting.

In the same area, some of the plants looked much worse but recovered, and show virtually no sign of problems six months later: Begonias pinetorum (known also as dayi hort.), multinervia, venosa, 'Thurstonii, masoniana, and imperialis. B. 'Guy Savard' packed it in later, perhaps as much from the heat here as the cold.

The cold penetrated the greenhouse, too. Begonias rajah, exotica, and goegoensis are three that recovered well. G. 'Templini', a favorite, barely clinging to life before the cold, folded its tents and is deeply mourned.

It has been said before, but deserves repeating: be super-patient with cold damaged plants. they have a time table of their own, and it is sometimes amazing what will resurrect to live another day.

One thing is certain: the need to prepare for cold. We've had so many freezes in our area of late that some of the work is becoming second nature - though no less back-breaking.

Here are a few tips which may help your begonias survive:

  1. Know where the rare treasures are in you collection.
  2. Have blankets and a source of heat ready, as well as hauling and storage game-plans.
  3. Keep some plastic, staples, nails and small timber on hand for building quick shelters over difficult to move plants.
  4. Long outdoor electrical cords and "trouble lights" that can be used in garden areas are helpful (this assumes you continue to have electricity, a big problem for many electrical customers in our area last winter).
  5. Keep your plants as vigorous and well grown as possible as you go into winter.

Here's to warmer weather...always!


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