Home > Begonian > Volume 68 (March/April 2001, pages 56 - 57)
Begonia Growing in Washington
by Louise Muzyk
Lake Washington fills a giant hollow among the hills
covered with evergreen trees that rise above the horizon. Houses cling to
the sharp hillside as if held there by hairpins. Patches of heavy forest
still claim the land where developers shy away. When there is a break in
the clouds, the sky is a deep heavenly blue. That is a word picture of
where I live.
Coming here to live from a below zero climate, this
was almost tropical for me. To see azaleas and rhododendrons and flowering
trees in full bloom the first of May, I thought it was a dream. I ran from
one clump of blossoms to another at the plant place, like a hungry
Spring is very slow to come at times due to the cloud
cover and rain keeping the high temperature in the 50's and the lows in
the mid 40's. Young plants set out early stay almost petrified until the
middle of June when the soil begins to warm. Originally from a farming
state, I wondered how crops could grow when the soil is so cold.
Summer arrives slowly with a few warm days and then
reverts back to clouds and rain. July sees some 80 degree days and then
August heats up to the 90's, but cools down at night to the 60's making it
The beauty of my first day here was etched deep in my
memory and will only be a memory because it was never repeated. The next
spring brought a long cold spell that froze buds so hard that many plants
It is the cold, dark days that makes growing tender
plants a challenge. Articles tell of how to grow begonias in greenhouses
or a sun porch and I have neither. I am new to begonias and so was crying
for help as I watched the beautiful plants disintegrate until only a few
wisps of plant material remained.
My home is small and the growing space is limited. A
long table facing the double south window holds the collection of
begonias. New plants are introduced as the older ones die as if accusing
me of giving them wet feet when they preferred dry or dry feet when they
wanted them wet. I finally realized they were not getting the requirements
Spring finds the table in the spare room filled with
young plants waiting to go outside. There were 'Tea Rose' plants, B.
'Charm', cubensis, and subvillosa. And a collection of
single impatiens and a tall growing double salmon colored one I have kept
for four years. Mildew hit the 'Tea Rose' plants and B. 'Charm' with full
force, but a quick spray of baking soda solution saves some, not without
injury. A small slip of B. 'Charm' was salvaged and a plastic bag
hid it from further attack. The 'Tea Rose' plants were badly crippled to
where slips were taken and also hidden in plastic bags.
With such battle scarred plants outside, I checked the
big begonia table inside. B. 'Mable Corwin' stands like a valiant guard,
afraid of nothing. The leaves are thick and covered with a soft, velvet
coating. But then I had new ones like B. 'Selover' a precious
little shrub, just getting started, has leaves so shiny and halfway
dreamy-colored where the red from the underside sneaks almost to the top.
Certainly, the powdery mildew could not attack that one.
The new canes are iffy, perhaps too early to tell if
they will succumb to the cold, damp, and sunless days. B. 'Dancing Girl'
had the center spot on the table with those lovely leaves reaching for the
light. The red veins stood out like embossing when the sun hit. Then, in
such a brief time, the leaves fell off although new ones are showing in
the safety of a plastic bag.
A gem among the new begonias is B. foliosa, a
miniature fern-like begonia with tiny leaves lined up on the main stem.
Little four petaled white flowers cling daintily to the branch tips. I
searched the leaves for evidence of the powder, but found none. Perhaps
the shine discourages the mildew. It gets sun in the morning and plenty of
light (if Seattle is lucky). It likes a coarse soil that drains quickly
and fertilized water with each drink After only a few months, it is ready
for a pedestal to hold the branches off the table. This one does well
without a terrarium.
B. venosa curled its leaves like a loose scroll
and refused to grow. Yet, B. echinosepala grew to overshadow other
plants and no amount of trimming could hold it back. Sadly, it had to go -
there was no space to keep a giant. B. lubbersii had formed a
statuesque plant and had sprays of large, pink flowers. In such a fleeting
time, it melted away. B. coccinea flourished for a while with
bright coral flowers and then lost its leaves and vanished like a
Our summer ration of sunshine had delightfully lasted
into the first week of October, although too late to help the begonias
that had already started their long rest period. This little area is free
from snow quite often and the temperature stays above freezing to where
some plants survive the winter. So far, I have not tested begonias
although a digitalis plant is in its fourth year. Temperatures seldom get
below 32 degrees F and will reach a high in the low to middle 40's
There must be many sturdy work horses in the begonia
world which are almost indestructible such as B. subvillosa. It
spends the summer under the evergreen and withstands the constant
battering of the elements and the assault of hungry slugs.
Why some begonias refuse to grow while others thrive
is a real mystery. The adversity stretches between two extremes, the cold,
damp air and dark, sunless days which become the lethal touch that kills -
outside of a plastic bag.