nyc-based composer, pianist, arranger, and music director. i do other stuff, too.

Begonia? I Don't Even Know Ya!

A discussion on plant propagation, created specifically for the folks at Target Margin with the hope that at least one person will find it interesting. This is not a high-school science project, but instead, a collection of my knowledge and thoughts accumulated over 15 years of plant ownership.

Leaf Detail, "Beefsteak"

The flowers are insignificant, but with leaves like these, who cares?
— a person on the internet

I have over 100 plant species living in my house right now, but none elicit my love more than my collection of Begonia. 

Perhaps the use of the word "collection" with regards to a plant is impressive to an outsider, but honestly, I'm usually a little disappointed every time think about it. A quick Google search reminds me that I own only a small percentage of the Begonia genus. I would like to own a large percentage of the Begonia genus. I realize that this is nearly impossible, considering that the Begonia is the 6th-largest genus of flowering plants, hosting more than 1,500 species under its name... But still, a man can dream.

1,500. Can you even believe that? It stresses me out.

So why so much emphasis on the Begonia? Their colors and structure are impressive, but I have many plants that fit those criteria. A person on the internet once said about the Begonia that, "the flowers are insignificant, but with leaves like these, who cares?" I only partially agree. The leaves are certainly gorgeous, but the flowers of certain species are delicate and lovely in their own right. The Beefsteak (pictured above) and many outdoor varieties (which are oftentimes treated as annuals but are able to live year-round when provided with proper care) are excellent examples of this (see Fig. 3).

But it's not the flowers, either. What I love most is the process and ritual of propagation. Taking one thing and making two things. Or three or four things, each identical, but each species just different enough from the other to warrant interest and attention. Waiting patiently for the new growth to erupt violently through the soil. Experimenting with different variables to learn what works best. Accepting the realization that my input in the process, millions of years in the making, is probably unnecessary.

And perhaps most importantly, sharing that knowledge with others as if it were gospel. This is my sacred.

Fig. 1 -  Cutting, unknown "Rex" variety

Fig. 2 - New growth, "Angel Wing"

Fig. 3 - Flower Detail, "Beefsteak"

Soil Overview

If there has ever been a case for direct-to-soil propagation - and boy, has there EVER - this is it. A Begonia cutting placed in water (see Fig. 1) will remain just that for eternity. Something about undifferentiated cells (similar to human stem cells) being unable to form a callus and seal the end of the cutting, therefore not allowing the plant’s hormones, auxin and cytokinin, to kick in and trigger the differentiation of those callus cells into root cells? Look, I don't know the details here but it probably has something to do with science so just don't do it. Place the cutting in a pot and be patient. It can take several weeks for the magic to happen (see Fig. 2).

Perfection is not necessary but as with all things in life, success depends on balance! I recommend a 4:1 ratio of Potting Soil to "Other Stuff" to ensure growth for non-succulent, non-fern houseplants. The mixture detailed below creates a suitable balance of aeration, water retention, and nutrient distribution in which your Begonia will be sure to thrive. Begonias are not picky about pot type - ceramic or plastic will do just fine - but be aware of your choice when selecting a location for the plant and while watering. A porous pot in a bright location will need more water than a non-porous pot in a less-bright location.

The Cutting

Virtually any part of the Begonia is useful for propagation, but I prefer the stem method. Using scissors, snip one leaf as close to the base, or node, as possible. See Fig. 1 for an example.

Light/Location

Begonias are fairly flexible when it comes to light as long as it's not pitch black or direct sunlight. I realize that leaves a lot of wiggle room, but you're just going to have to play around with it. The darker and richer-looking the leaf, the better. Burned or dull leaves are indicators of too much sunlight.

Northern and Eastern windows are great for leaf development but your plant will likely not flower (see Fig. 3). Southern and Western exposure offer a great full package as long as the plant is moved a foot or two away from the window. As I learned in my girlfriend's basement apartment, grow lights will work just fine, too. Brighter, warmer rooms will offer more flexibility with placement. 

Water

This is the last point in the checklist because all other variables will determine your watering schedule, not the other way around. If a person talks about number of waterings per specific time period, a red flag should go up immediately. That person does not know what they are talking about. Soil feel and leaf firmness above all. Allowing the plant to communicate with you is paramount and thankfully, quite easy. Is the soil dry when you stick your finger in? Water it! Are the leaves feeling soft and looking droopy? Water it! Are none of these things happening? Don't water it!

It may well be that this process leads to x waterings per week or month, but relying on time instead of other factors is not a good habit to get into. This is one of those "principle" things your parents always talked about when you were younger. As is usually the case, they had a point.


Perfect Potting Soil Recipe:

  • 2 cups potting soil
  • 1/4 cup dumb soil*
  • 1.5 Tbsp vermiculite
  • 1.5 Tbsp perlite
  • 1 Tbsp pulverized sphagnum moss (see video below)

* Dumb soil is old, dry, un-diseased soil from another plant that you haven't composted yet. And if you live in the right part of Brooklyn, feel free to simply dig up some of your yard. Adding this component is a great way to recycle old soil and allows mini strata to form within the pot, creating a textural variance for future roots to explore and grab on to.

Sphagnum Moss pulverization. CAUTION: advanced users only. Created for Target Margin Theater, 2014.


Begonias for Beginners:

Soil components, clockwise from the left: potting soil, dumb soil, sphagnum moss, perlite, vermiculate. Also pictured: A pencil.

  1. Acquire pot. If it's an old pot, give it a good rinse. If it's a new pot, you're good to go.
  2. Acquire cutting of Begonia (see below).
  3. Fill pot with soil mixture, leaving approx. 1/2 inch of clearance at the top. 
  4. Using a wooden pencil, or other similarly-shaped object, create a hole in the dirt (see Fig. 4). The depth must be equal to at least half the length of the desired cutting, but not so deep as to cover the entire stem.
  5. Place Begonia stem in hole and lightly pack soil around it. See Fig. 2.
  6. Water thoroughly.
  7. Wait. Maybe for a while.
  8. Follow all suggestions in above paragraphs.
  9. Feed during the summer months with a highly-diluted plant food mixture.
  10. Repeat as desired.

Fig. 4 - pencil technique


Good Job!

You are now on your way to Begonia success! Start out simple and then when you're feeling fancy, you can graduate up to one of the Rex varieties, with their colorful and oddly shaped leaves. Begonias make for beautiful, quickly-rewarding, and easy-to-care-for houseplants that are sure to impress.

BUT they are toxic to both cats and dogs, so watch out for that.

If you'd like a piece from my collection or if you have any issues whatsoever, don't hesitate to be in touch using the form to the right. Be sure to include images and/or vivid descriptions so we can troubleshoot.

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