Dramatic, showy foliage makes this king of begonias an indoor/outdoor must-have.
Text and photos by Mary Lynn Bruny
The Rex begonia is a regal plant worthy of a throne in any home. “Rex” means “king” in Latin, and this plant is definitely king when it comes to showy, ornamental foliage. With a huge variety of leaf shapes, sizes and textures, as well as wild color combinations and patterns, the Rex begonia complements any space. Over the years, the hybridization of this plant has created hundreds of varieties, everything from compact dwarf charmers to huge, large-leafed beauties.
Originally from India, the lush Rex begonia grows from short rhizomes. In some varieties, the heavy leafstalks, veins and edges are covered with short, fine hairs. The plant is relatively closely related to pumpkins, squash, cucumbers and melons, and you can see and feel the similarities in some larger varieties.
From a style standpoint, the Rex is like a shade-loving coleus on steroids. The striking foliage is perfectly suited for current ’60s and ’70s retro-influenced decors: lime greens, citrus yellows, purples, pinks, deep reds, silvers, grays and blacks. But the Rex’s deep-toned varieties are just as at home in more traditional color schemes.
“Certain styles will grab you for whatever reason, whether you love the color or think they would be great with your decor,” says Thad Johnson, owner of Yatahai Gardens west of Longmont. Johnson has grown Rex begonias since 2006, and currently sells around 30 varieties to customers in the state and beyond. “Given their uniqueness, they sell themselves when people see them,” Johnson says. “There’s something so tropical about them, because of the thickness and juiciness of the leaves. They’re so unlike anything that grows around here.”
Despite a tropical appearance, Rexes are easy to grow, requiring only a healthy amount of water and occasional fertilizer. “If you can grow a spider plant, you can grow a Rex begonia,” Johnson says. But to prevent powdery mildew, avoid letting the plant sit in water.
The Rex’s slow-growing habit makes it an ideal houseplant, as well as an outdoor summer container plant; no constant pruning needed. Johnson plants them in outdoor pots with host as, coleus, New Guinea and regular impatiens, and red or purple Dracaena spikes.
“What intrigues a lot of people is that they can have them outside in the shade and they’ll fully tolerate our regular temperature shifts from May through early October, and then they can be brought inside before it freezes,” Johnson says. “I have many people who come back for more, because they love them as houseplants.”
One of the classic, original Rex begonias, ‘Evelyn Weidner’ is known for consistency through the year (and years) in leaf color, new leaf growth and flowering ability.
‘Gryphon,’ a beautiful mounding variety, recently became the first Rex produced from seed (as opposed to leaf cuttings), allowing it to be sold for much less and used in mass outdoor plantings.
The small, tightly mounded ‘Soli Mutata’ has dramatic textured leaves that can withstand more light than other Rex varieties, making it good for bright locations. With the most pronounced spiral pattern, ‘Escargot’ has a loose and open mounding habit that’s ideal in mixed containers.
Rx for Rex
Here’s a quick rundown on Rex begonias.
Size: Height/width ranges from 6 to 8 inches up to 20 to 24 inches.
Shape: Tight to loose mounding.
Leaves: Wavy to flat in a variety of shapes—hearts, circles, maple leaves—
and color patterns.
Blooms: None to insignificant; sporadic.
Light: Shade to bright shade, depending on the variety; light amount affects color depth and contrast.
Water: A thirsty plant, but don’t let it sit in water; will wilt if too dry, but typically pops back after deep watering.
Growth habit: Slow growing; the small root structure tolerates a small container.
Care: Remove dead or brown-edged leaves; fertilize monthly for optimal leaf color and plant health.
Common problems: Powdery mildew or fungus, usually due to sitting in water.