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Home > Begonian > Volume 68 (July/August 2001, pages 154 - 156)

Terrarium Growing in the Office
by Virginia Jens

I am relatively new to terrarium growing. My original reaction to "terrariums" was that they were for the unfortunate people forced to live in the frozen northern lands or in condominiums with no balcony. After all, I am fortunate to live in Florida where plants live in their proper place - outside. However, when I decided to try terrarium plants, keeping terrariums outdoors as Charles Jaros did in Miami didn't work for me. The opossums, raccoons, squirrels, cats, and dogs knocked the lids off on a regular basis leaving the plants to drown or dehydrate, or the sun would shift turning that terrarium in the shade into a begonia oven.

Tim Anderson may be able to grow many plants outside of a contained atmosphere in his Miami greenhouse but my efforts without a terrarium weren't successful. My inside efforts, when I was determined that at least I could grow B. rajah, weren't much better. It seems that terrarium begonias are in direct competition with cats for grow-light space. (In case you are wondering, yes, it is possible to achieve quite spectacular results by raising your cats under grow lights. Riley, my Himalayan mix is now over 25 pounds, which I attribute to all those hours spent under the grow light after he casually kicked the terrariums off the end of the shelf to claim his rightful place.)

After the 2000 convention when I gave in and bought several of Wanda Macnair's generous terrarium donations to the plant sale, a solution appeared. I started a new job with Palm Beach County's Environmental Resources Management Department. Being so ecologically inclined, they wouldn't mind one or two terrariums by my desk, I thought, even though begonias aren't Florida natives. I was right; the staff loves to check on their progress, and several plants have found their way to happy new homes in other parts of the building or staff members' homes. B. microsperma, B. prismatocarpa, and B. 'Buttercup', with their spectacular yellow flowers are conversation pieces. The Assistant Director even worried about the safety of the collection when our building was tented for termites.

Of course, those 3 or 4 terrariums have now increased to approximately 25. The terrariums are taking over. I was fortunate to find and rescue a plexiglass shelf unit from a neighbor's trash pile last month, but that was quickly filled by moving plants out of the propagation box. I have assured my division director that the duplicates would go to Denver and find happy homes elsewhere in the country. I didn't mention that the prop box is full of cuttings which will fill the empty spots or that I would no doubt propagate, trade, and buy more plants (especially those yellow flowering African species). I'd love to try a Symbegonia or Hillebrandia although I'm told that the latter are huge.

The two propagation boxes have proved to be the only disappointment to the staff. I grow in Fafard (my regular soilless potting mix) rather than cut sphagnum, and my "boxes" are nothing more than plastic baked goods containers. My fellow employees, perpetually hungry, are disappointed to find begonia cuttings and not the expected chocolate brownies in the container. Most, after their initial letdown, are interested in the process of growing from the wedge cuttings.

Computers and begonias working together!

Growing has been good in the office. Fluorescent lighting for 14 hours a day, with indirect filtered light from the windows on weekends and holidays, works well. The only plant not liking the lighting so far is B. U070 (incisa?). I got this as a tiny little plant from Doug Pridgen in Miami. It grew well for a while, then seemed very droopy and red after I "potted it up" to a larger terrarium. 

On the advice of Dianna Wilkerson, I moved i1 to a lower shelf with lower light conditions. She also thought it might be too damp, but actually after the repotting i1 was too dry. 

The lid of the new "terrarium" didn't fit tightly enough and the humidity levels dropped. With increased water and lower light, it has new growth and is more upright. The plants on the shelf above it, cubical walls on two sides and the typing stand in front of the lowest shelf all provide "shade" from the overhead light.


terrariums in Virginia Jens' office B. Buttercup in terrarium
Closeup of B. 'Buttercup', just as happy as B. microsperma below in Virginia's Bubble City.

terrariums in Virginia Jens' officeThe only pest problems I've had have been a result of using my previously opened bag of Fafard for soil. Since I store the potting soil outside in the yard, I have found an occasional little snail chomping on my begonias, and an occasional worm It's a waiting game, but I win eventually They can run, but it's hard to hide in a glass terrarium!

The big success has been B microsperma. Every time I "pot it up" to a larger terrarium, the leaves get large: and larger. Maybe B. microsperma is it the giant leaved category when it's a home in Africa! I don't know if I car find (or afford) the larger glass bowl which it needs. I'm contemplating a plexiglas hex aquarium, maybe 55 gallon. Hope fully one will be offered at a yard sale. 

I have found that one watering will last to months and months, and as B microsperma dries out it will bloom. I think the lower humidity levels convince it the dry season has arrived and it's time to reproduce. The large yellow flower are spectacular.

While I still love my "regular" begonias, terrarium plants have great assets: little watering, little fertilizing, little upkeep in general. Vacations and long holiday weekends have presented no problems.

An "Indiana Jones/Dr. Livingston" quality is there to inspire the imagination to: B. subnummularifolia first identified in Borneo in 1926; B. versicolor - China, 1939; B. limprichtii -China, 1922; B. crispula - Brazil, 1950; B. coriacea in Java in 1844; B. microsperma - the Cameroons, 1895; B. rajah - Malaysia, 1894; B. rotundifolia -Haiti, 1785; B. luzonensis - the Philippines, 1904; B. prismatocarpa - Tropical West Africa, 1826; B. herbacea - Brazil, 1831. I look up from the computer for a minute or two and I have completed not only a trip around the world, but a history review as well.


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