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The versatile begonia puts its best leaf forward

Grown for their colorful, shapely foliage, these houseplants are a dream to grow and share with friends.

By Cathy Wilkinson BarashCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 8, 2007

All about texture: Unusual begonias are prized by collectors, and institutions such as the Glasgow Botanic Garden in Scotland, which owns these two specimens, have extensive collections of the plants. Shown here, a closeup of a leaf of the Begonia chloroneura.

Melanie Stetson Freeman – staff

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DES MOINES, IOWA

I hate to admit it, but I have a plant prejudice: I am a former begonia hater. Perhaps my original distaste for the plants came from the years I worked as the admissions gate attendant at Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

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Late each spring, the large beds in front and behind the booth were planted with impatiens and begonias – the most common annuals for semi-shade. They were typical bedding begonias, growing less than a foot tall, with green or bronze leaves and white or pink flowers. One day, after hearing me sound off, the curator of the begonia collection in the main greenhouse challenged me that he could change my mind about begonias.

He proudly showed off his 200-plus plants. I was amazed at the variety of leaf textures and shapes – from tiny and hairy to huge and smooth, from rounded to serrated, and from flat to crinkled. He gave me a rooted leaf cutting that grew into a gorgeous plant, which later moved with me to Iowa.

Although bedding begonias are considered annuals, all begonias are tropical perennials that can live for years indoors (outdoors in USDA plant hardiness zones 10 and 11). Rhizomatous and tuberous begonias need to go dormant in the winter.

The American Begonia Society divides begonia into different horticultural classes: canelike (tall, bamboo-like stems that bear large, airy clusters of flowers, also known as "angel wings"); rex (considered to be the "kings" of begonias with amazingly colorful leaves – streaked, spotted, splotched, or bordered by many colors, easiest to grow from cuttings); rhizomatous (clouds of flowers rising above the leaves year-round, easy to grow); semperflorens (the commonly grown begonia – the bedding or "wax" begonia); shrublike (upright, branching stems); trailing-scandent (like vines, they grow up or trail down, depending on how they are planted, great for hanging baskets); and tuberous, (with large, showy blossoms).

There are many begonias from which to choose, and new varieties arrive every year. Rex and tuberous begonias are more challenging to grow for the beginner and are more finicky about growing conditions, so start off with other types. These are my picks for some of the best to grow:

• Benitochiba: Magnificent palmate, metallic rosy-red leaves. Tolerates lower humidity. Well-branched with an upright stem, pink flowers borne on 24-inch stems. Height: about 24 inches. Shrublike.

• Black Raspberry: Pebbly textured leaves – reddish-green with red veins above, red below. Pink blossoms. Height: 10 to 15 inches. Rhizomatous.

• Bubbles: Fanciful, eye-catching dark-green angel-wing leaves dotted with white. Reddish-pink flowers with a delightful apple blossom scent (when grown in high humidity and sun). Height: 12 to 24 inches. Canelike.

• Cathedral (Stained Glass begonia): Awe-inspiring when filtered light shines through the leaves, giving the impression of red and green "windows" on the unique ruffled leaves. Flowers: 12-inch spikes of ivory-pink. Height: 18 to 20 inches. Rhizomatous.

• Cowardly Lion: Coppery-gold leaves with deeply colored veins. Hairy stems. Showy white blooms. Height: 6 to 12 inches. Rhizomatous.