Down the rabbit hole: plantkiller in begonia land

An award-winning F. Rex... and I have no idea what that actually means.

I stumbled into a strange and oddly exhilarating world yesterday… the secret society of Begonia lovers. (OK, it’s not so secret. The Buxton Branch of the American Begonia Society meets at the Wellesley Library and even advertises co-potlucks with the Gesneriad Society. But it feels like they should have a secret knock, because they speak their own language, are fonts of arcane knowledge and even practice ancient magic — the mysterious art of making plants from plants…)

Yes, I got very brave yesterday and ventured forth to the Begonias and Gesneriads Propagation class at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. The class complimented a Begonias and Gesneriads (plant group best known for the African Violet) show… and when they say “show” they mean, like Best in Show, with blue ribbons and Honorable Mentions and so forth. My best friend nailed it: “You were waaaaaay down the rabbit hole.” Yes. Yes, I was. And I thought I was just going to get my hands dirty in  an hour-long propagation class.

I was a little intimidated. I had never been to the gardens before and going for a class on my first visit… whoa. Plantkiller, undercover. (As those of you who’ve been following my adventures know, I called Tower Hill experts last week for help identifying the Not-Posion-Ivy in my garden plot. They still haven’t solved the riddle, but my cry for help led to surfing around the botanic garden’s website, which took my breath away with its enticing class schedule. Next thing you know, I’ve borrowed the Fitchburg Public Library’s free pass and off I go to  the wilds of Boylston, Mass.)

And a blue ribbon goes to Episcia Spearmint, a gesneriad (I think). Yes, that is metallic!

Honestly, I’m not going to lie; 24 hours later and my head is still spinning. I heard so many words I don’t know, so much mysterious offhand talk, stuff plantkiller had no business pretending to chat about. Yet, there I found myself… eager to listen and learn, scratching away in my notebook, not afraid to make a complete ass of myself, quick to the freebie box of cuttings and shoots. And feeling vaguely like I was in church, wandering around the Tower Hill “Orangerie” afterwards, ogling all the dreamy specimens. (But much more on that later. I foresee about a week’s worth of posts coming from this visit. So many ideas, thoughts, issues...)

Some highlights, along with my favorite begonias and gesneriads from the show… (This one below is called Marmaduke, no joke.)

1) The class was led by a woman named Wanda Mcnair,  who’s big in begonia circles. Also known affectionately as “The Butcher” and “Wanda Scissorhands” for her flair with cuttings, this 80-some-year-old wunderkind assured us: “These plants are so anxious to grow! You don’t have to be that picky.” Wanda, meet plantkiller. Let’s talk.

2) I was about 3 minutes late, so I never got the full story on what was in the plastic “soilous mixture” bag Wanda kept pulling dirt from. Is it me, or are gardeners a little secretive and proprietary about their “medium?” The best I could tell — and you know I asked — it was some kind of potting soil. At least that’s what she said will work for propagation, along with “special mixes” (huh?) for starting seeds, vermiculite and perlite, or various mixtures of these substances… take your pick. I found her instructions a little vague in this area. But remember, these plants just WANT to grow! (Rooting cuttings in water is an “old practice” some still “cling” to, Wanda wrote, in her handout. That’s what I’m trying with my Coleus. Huh? Now I’m old-school?)

3) Begonias can be propagated from leaves, stems or canes, depending on the type. For semperflorens (!), cane-like, shrub-like and thick-stemmed, do a stem cutting. Cut just below the leaf node (at an angle, providing the most rooting surface) and remove one or two sets of leaves above. (“Less energy going into the leaves,” Wanda said.) With larger-leafed cane-like begonia, cut off about half of each individual leaf. Then insert it into your “medium,” and place in a warm/light place, but NOT in strong sunlight. “Take it easy,” Wanda warned.

4) Rhizomatous (!?) and Rex begonias can be started from leaves, or even a cutting of a leaf. The leaf “veins” are planted in the soil. (This is called a “hub cutting,” cutting the leaf down to a smaller version of itself, leaving the major veins intact.) You can also scrape the stem of the leaf to “wound” the cells and stimulate new growth. Violent!

Another T, I mean, F Rex

5) Don’t propagate in too large a pot; the plants get too wet and rot. (We know all about begonias and “wet feet” here at Casa Plantkiller.) Six-inch containers are good. You’ll know when they’re rooted from the resistance when you tug. (That’s scary…) Rooting can take a couple of weeks or longer…. much longer. Just leave ’em in there and let ’em grow, it sounds like.

6) All gesneriads can grow from leaves.

A dear little Chirita gemella

7) At one point, a woman in the audience asked “Who is this?” when Wanda introduced a plant. Like the plant was… a person. I loved that.

Another fuzzy little gesneriad

There was more, so much more. My notes are totally crazy. I actually went up afterwards and made sure I really understood what a “node” is. (It’s where the leaf meets the stem, as I’m sure God and everyone already knows. Greeeeeaaaaaat. Just makin’ sure. This is the part where I’m not afraid to make a complete idiot of myself in front of a room full of experts.)

There was also a LOT of talk about growing begonias and gesneriads in terrariums and the properties/sources of the growing medium, dry spagnum moss. I won’t even get into that right now. Whole ‘nother topic. Not sure how I feel about that yet.

At the end of the class, we all got to choose cane and leaf cuttings and stems to try at home. Much more on my science projects later. Suffice to say I rushed home to plant them right away, reading my handouts from Wanda, super nerdy. Here’s my booty…

After the class, Wanda was mobbed at the begonia show; she had her groupies, for sure. Meanwhile, I got to know a few begonia socialites, Pat and Becky. Pat has a dining room table full of dirt and plants and a basement full of worms. Becky wrote a piece on spagnum moss for the ABS newsletter. They were both very kind as I related my only relevant experience: my exciting tale of saving two wax leaf begonias this summer. (Though, with my plants being so, uh, common Becky and Pat weren’t sure they’d get all Herculean trying to winter them over. I am going to, though… they’re practically family now!)

It was an exciting day. Do I love begonias enough to join a group like the American Begonia Society? Am I going down the rabbit hole and staying? I’m not sure.

But I might look for a Coleus Support Group.

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About plantkiller

Paysha Rhone is a wife, mother, former-journalist-turned-PR-maven and bad mamajama killing plants in the Victorian splendor of Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
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7 Responses to Down the rabbit hole: plantkiller in begonia land

  1. Nicole says:

    These plants are kinda ugly, no? Except for that cute little gesneriad. But then, I bought some sort of trumpet flower earlier this year that my neighbor said was the most god-awful ugly thing he’d ever seen. Love the passions that plants can inspire!

    • plantkiller says:

      Haha, I LOVE all these plants, especially the metallic leaf ones. Make me crazy! You’re right, though, it’s all taste. And associations apparently, too. I certainly have my strong dislikes when it comes to plants!

  2. Heather Cloud Munkacsy says:

    Wow – that sounds like an adventure! Is that picture of the plantable leaf veins? They look kinda like caterpillars.

  3. If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things. ~ Albert Einstein

  4. Pingback: Down the rabbit hole: plantkiller in begonia land | Queensland Begonia Society

  5. BegoniacinVA says:

    Fellow begoniac here. That begonia is not Marmaduke. It is either “Cowardly Lion” or “Wild Pony”, although I’m leaning more toward “Cowardly Lion.” Happy growing! 🙂

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