Your grandmother might have grown begonias, but the cane begonia — commonly called angel wing begonia — is now in fashion, not old-fashioned. Especially in warm climates, where we can grow these prolific bloomers year-round, the angel wing is a heavenly addition to the garden.
Begonias grow in a variety of ways, as bedding plants, trailing plants, shrubs and compacts. But cane begonias, which have tough, bamboolike stems, typically grow the largest (from just a foot or two up to 6 feet in a pot and 15 feet in the ground, depending on the variety).
Collectors grow them for both their classic angel-shaped leaves, which can be spotted or textured, and for their delicate clusters of flowers in shades of pink, white, coral or red. Depending on the variety, they'll bloom throughout the year — and some are continuous, heavy bloomers.
I'm so smitten with angel wing that I have several growing in containers and in the ground in part-sun to shady areas. They bloom year-round in delicate pinks and coral, adding a splash of color from one season to the next. An added bonus: They're easy to grow.
When shopping for a cane-type begonia, you'll find several types distinguished by their leaves. Green, deeply cut leaves that are often spotted are classified as "Superba," while plants with reddish leaves are known as "Mallet." All develop long stems with nodes that look like bamboo.
"They are pretty tough, especially in pots because you can control the soil," says Chris Murphy at Gulf Coast Garden Center in St. Petersburg, which typically stocks a nice selection of begonias (cane, trailing, bedding and others). He recommends growing them in bright-light eastern and northern exposure areas, especially in summer months when heat and sun could scald a cane begonia. If your plant is in a pot, you can control its location to provide more shade during the summer.
If you are using a container, make sure it can hold at least several gallons and is on the heavier side (such as ceramic, clay or heavy-duty plastic). Cane begonias will develop a large root system, plus their long stems and cascading flower clusters could tip a wimpy pot in no time.
Rich, well-drained soil is a plus, although my in-ground plants have taken to their planting beds without much fuss. If your soil is sandy, add some peat, compost or other organic matter. Begonias aren't heavy drinkers or feeders. Just water when the top of soil is nearly dry; in fact, they prefer less water than overwatering (if the leaves turn yellow and fall from the plant, you are overwatering). Toss slow-release fertilizer granules with balanced nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) around the plant, steering clear of the few inches around canes. Periodically enriching the soil with compost helps nourish the growing medium and feed your plant.
According to the American Begonia Society, cane begonias are typically pest- and disease-free, which has been my experience for more than five years. The society recommends treating any ailment in the least toxic way possible, such as handpicking affected leaves.
I regularly prune my cane begonias not only to keep their size in check and encourage new growth from the base, but also to make entirely new plants. That's one of the other benefits of angel wing — it's so easy to propagate that you'll soon have more plants for your yard and to share. Simply prune canes using a sharp tool, then root the cutting in a small container of perlite or sand. I've even started new plants by simply placing cuttings in water (be sure to keep it fresh by changing periodically) or just inserting them into a garden pot or container on the patio.
In fact, my first angel wing begonia came from a good friend's plant I was "babysitting" one summer. I put a few cuttings into a vase of water to spruce up an outdoor table setting, kept the water fresh, planted the cuttings once roots had formed — and voila! my band of angels began.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a Pinellas County master gardener. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.