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GARDENING : Begonia Sale Has It Made in the Shade


The amazing diversity of begonia leaf forms, colorations and patterns as well as their colorful and sometimes fragrant flowers, are what attract adherents of these shade-loving plants.

Elda Regimbal grows so many cane and rex begonias at her Fullerton house that she's lost count of how many are actually in her collection. But she estimates she has at least 3,000 and keeps acquiring more as hybridizers develop new varieties.

Not surprisingly, Regimbal is a past president and currently the vice president of the Orange County chapter of the American Begonia Society. She lectures to garden clubs and even has a begonia named for her.

"I started growing begonias 30 years ago when a friend persuaded me to join the Begonia Society," Regimbal explained. "I was captivated by the different varieties and have kept that initial fascination with them."

Regimbal's collection is housed in a 4,500 square-foot lath house that adjoins her home. Most of the plants are grown in containers, arranged on tables by variety and leaf colors. She also has a nursery where she raises new plants from cuttings.

Many of these young plants will be sold today and Sunday during the American Begonia Society Convention in Anaheim. A begonia show, which will also take place, is an excellent opportunity to view the wide diversity of varieties. Experts will be on hand to answer questions.

The show and sale, which is held only once every five years, will take place at the Inn at the Park, 1855 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. Admission is free, but there's a $7 parking fee. Several thousand plants will be for sale. Prices range from $2 to $10 depending on size, which range from three-inch pots to five-gallon containers.

Begonias have a reputation for being hard to grow, but begonia hobbyists say they thrive if one understands their cultural requirements. They can't tolerate heat or frost.

"If you grow ferns, you can grow begonias," Regimbal says.

Begonias are perennial plants that are categorized by their growth habits. The major classifications are cane, rex, rhizomatous, shrublike and tuberous.

Cane begonias are so named because their stems grow tall and woody with bamboo-like joints. Many need staking to support the canes and flower clusters that in some varieties can grow up to one foot across. These are among the most popular begonias because they best tolerate heat.

From spring through fall, they produce flower clusters in white, pink, red, coral or orange shades. Some are fragrant, especially in the mornings. Leaf coloration can include silver in a variety of patterns.

Rex begonias have bright, multicolored leaves with many different types of foliage patterns. Collectors tend to grow them as foliage plants since their flowers are insignificant. They're more susceptible to heat than other begonias.

Rhizomatous begonias, like rex, grow from a rhizome, a stemlike structure that creeps at or near soil level. They're grown both for foliage and flowers, since they flower from winter through summer. Some people grow them as indoor houseplants.

Shrub begonias are characterized by soft, green multiple stems rather than the bamboo-like stems of the cane begonias. They have heavily textured leaves, some containing red or white "hairs," and others have a coating resembling felt.

Tuberous begonias are also popular because of their vivid flower colors and showiness in hanging baskets. These begonias are grown from tubers and are very susceptible to heat.

Begonia experts prefer to grow all these begonia varieties in containers, although cane begonias can thrive when planted in the ground if the correct shade and watering conditions are met.

"It's easier to control the watering and fertilizing of these plants when they're in containers, and it's also convenient to be able to move them around," Regimbal explained.

Begonias require dappled sun or shade. Serious begonia fanciers grow them under lath or shade-cloth structures. Regimbal's even contains a fish pond with stream, cages of doves, cockatiels and canaries, and several sitting areas to enjoy the beautiful site.

Michael Kartuz is a begonia expert who sells many hundreds of varieties worldwide by mail order or to visitors to his Vista greenhouses.

He says begonias thrive when planted in a porous, fast-draining medium. He uses equal amounts of peat moss and medium coarse perlite. He advises waiting until the plants are almost dry before watering them again. He also recommends consistent feeding with a water-soluble fertilizer--one teaspoon per gallon of water every other watering.

Regimbal blends her own potting mix. She uses one part small perlite, one part small orchid bark, one part oak leaf mold and one part light commercial potting mix. She adds timed-release fertilizer to each container and supplements once a week with a foliar fertilizer at one-quarter-strength of its recommended application.

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