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Hard Work to Raise Tropical Beauties Here

June 24, 1989|JUDITH SIMS

People who grow begonias in Southern California are a stubborn and responsible crew, undeterred by the hard work and constant vigilance required to raise rain-forest plants in a desert. The closer to the ocean's benevolent breezes and humidity the better, but anyone living inland, especially in the valleys, should have shade cloth, lath house or humid greenhouse to pamper these beauties.

Of course, a few begonias don't need such coddling. The semperflorens is a tough little plant, and the fabulous rex varieties do very nicely in bright living rooms, so long as they receive their quota of humidity.

Many on Display

Many such begonias--and quite a few more--will be on display and for sale at Fox Hills Mall in Culver City this weekend, the event sponsored by the Westchester branch of the American Begonia Society.

"We always have new varieties at the show too," says Irene Nuss, president of the Westchester branch. "Many have been collected in the rain forest."

The popular varieties on display will be the cane or angel wing types; semperflorens or bedding (known to the uninitiated as fibrous or wax begonias); tuberous, both hanging and upright; rex, rhizomatous and shrublike.

"We also are going to have demonstrations showing how to grow various kinds," Nuss says, "and if anyone has questions, people will be there to answer them.

"All begonias are more or less shade plants," Nuss says. "Only the semperflorens does well in sun. The angel wing--we can call them cane types--are relatively easy to grow. They need morning light, and they'll do well along the coast and all over the United States where it's cool. Where it's hot, they need to be in a lath house."

The cane types are erect plants with many stems, and they bloom extravagantly from spring through autumn. Cane-type begonias are propagated from tip cuttings.

The rhizomatous begonias are primarily grown for the leaves and flowers. "Some have leaves the size of a quarter, others 8 to 10 inches across," Nuss says. "The leaves are in different patterns, and there are many types, upright and low, in different shades of green. The flowers are little pink blooms appearing in winter and early spring."

The Iron Cross begonia, which many people might consider a rex, is actually a rhizomatous begonia. But then, rex begonias grow from bulblike rhizomes too; the difference is the color of the leaf--many colors for rex, greens for the rhizomatous.

As for the semperflorens, Nuss says: "Everybody knows they are the easiest to grow." The familiar plants have flowers in the white, red and pink range, and the foliage can be green or bronze, red or variegated. Although all begonias are perennials, the semperflorens types are treated like annuals, replanted every year. The only begonia that is a staple in the landscape trade, semperflorens begonias line walks and driveways, fill beds in parks and even brighten the occasional gas station.

Plenty of Water

Tuberous begonias wouldn't be caught alive in such places. They need plenty of water and humidity--not the best plant for drought conditions. The exquisite flowers resemble roses and come in every color except blue; several varieties have petals edged in contrasting colors. The flowers are so gorgeous it's understandable why some dedicated people spend hours hovering with a plant mister.

Rex begonias are grown for their beautiful leaves. The plants do have tiny flowers, but they are merely tolerated. The rex leaves have all colors from silver to burgundy, Nuss says. Rexes are propagated by leaf cuttings in greenhouse conditions--with high humidity (as much as 50%). "I'm now starting them in trays filled with Oasis, that green foam used by florists," Nuss says. "I cut each leaf into wedges, making sure there is a piece of the main vein in each wedge." The rhizomatous begonias are also propagated by leaf cuttings.

Shrub begonias, like the cane types, grow from multiple stems and are valued for their leaves as well as their flowers. They can grow as tall as 8 feet, with pink, white, peach or red flowers popping out all year. These too are grown from tip cuttings.

Species From South Africa

Nuss says there are also terrarium begonias--grown in either greenhouse or terrarium. "These are species from South Africa; many have yellow flowers and smaller leaves, as a rule. I'm growing one from China called 'Versicolor,' that looks like a rex with velvety leaves."

Nuss is a 30-year member of the American Begonia Society. "I'm also a hybridizer of cane types," she says, "I've done 50 of them." She doesn't have a greenhouse, "but I have a plant room connected to the house and I do have a lath house open on one side." Nuss insists that she is just a hobbyist, but she does "a lot of speaking at the different branches of the society." She says there are branches in Orange County, Garden Grove, San Diego and many other communities.

"The annual sale generates income for our branch of the begonia society, so we can afford to have speakers and to educate people about how to grow these plants," Nuss says. "It's not something you can learn in one week or two meetings." The branch's monthly meetings are open to the public. Membership in the national society costs $15 per year and includes a subscription to The Begonian. "There's an additional charge for joining the local branch, ($3 for Westchester)," Nuss says.

The American Begonia Society's Westchester branch plant show and sale, Fox Hills Mall, Culver City, today and Sunday; mall hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

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