By Sean Conway

I have always been fascinated with plants. My introduction to horticulture came via a talented neighbor, Mary Sears, who not only kept a beautiful garden but also grew an assortment of houseplants, as many gardeners did in the early 1970s.

Mary had the perfect house for growing plants. With ample light from big windows facing south, east and west, she could grow almost anything. Everything she cultivated seemed to thrive. I remember the feeling, as a small boy, that entering her home was like a trip to some far off tropical jungle.

Green plants hung from baskets on the sides of windows, flowering plants erupted from pots, and in the spring a series of trays and pans teemed with seedlings, which were later planted out into her garden once the danger of frost had past.

Mary grew a spectacular collection of begonias, and I vividly remember the vast array of leaf textures, shapes and colors of their exotic foliage. They were beautifully displayed in her living room, thriving in the bright light.

Begonias seemed to have had their heyday back in the '70s and '80s when houseplants in general were all the rage. Not as many people grow plants inside these days, and it is a rare sight to see one beautiful begonia, let alone a collection like Mary's.

There are hundreds of varieties of begonias and they can be found in various sizes and shapes from low-growing plants that form dense clumps in their pots to tall cane-like varieties that can grow upwards of 5 feet tall.

One of my favorite types of begonia is the Rex; I grow several different varieties of it. Rex begonias are prized specifically for their ornate foliage. Their leaves can be found in a dizzying array of colors and shapes, from red with silver splotching to green with gold overlay to all silver with white spots. They're easy to grow and make excellent houseplants, as well as seasonal container plants for outdoor culture during warmer months.

Rex begonias grow from rhizomes, which are a type of modified stem. Rhizomes creep along the ground and form roots, anchoring them to the soil as they grow. Typically of rhizome-forming plants, Rex begonias grow in mounds. Most will create dense foliage about 12 to 18 inches wide. Their leaves vary in size and range from 9 inches long and 5 inches wide to much smaller dimensions for miniature varieties.

Rex begonias prefer to grow in bright light but out of direct sun -- perfect for household conditions. They will also grow well under florescent lighting. As with most begonias, they will not be happy with soggy soil. It is best to water well, and then allow the soil to dry out. Rex begonias grow best with higher than average household humidity levels. This can easily be achieved by either adding a humidifier to the room or growing them on water-filled pebble trays with care being taken to keep the pots out of the water.

Begonias are not heavy feeders and prefer a weak dose of an organic based water-soluble fertilizer every three to four weeks during the spring and summer months, and every six weeks during the winter. Many commercial fertilizers contain high levels of salts, which can build up in pots.

I prefer to grow mine in clay pots to ensure good drainage and air exchange for their roots, but they will do just fine in plastic pots, provided you do not over water them.

Begonias of all types will benefit from going outdoors for the summer months. Increased light and humidity levels often produce an abundance of new growth with more intensified color in the leaves.

While you may not want a whole collection of begonias like my neighbor had, I should warn you that they're a bit like potato chips: one quite often leads to another!

Available at

Trowel and Error: Over 700 Tips, Remedies and Shortcuts for the Gardener

Cut Your Energy Bills Now: 150 Smart Ways to Save Money & Make Your Home More Comfortable & Green

It's Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living

Copyright © Cultivating Life by Sean Conway. All rights reserved.





Home & Garden - Flash From the Past: Growing Begonias Indoors