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Home > Begonian > Volume 68 (March/April 2001, pages 56 - 57)

Begonia Growing in Washington State
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 bumblebee.

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 always bearable.

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 died.

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 they needed.

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 ghost.

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.

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