Making sense of begonia varieties

I’ve probably had hundreds of different house plants over the years, but the one I miss the most is the dragon wing begonia.

I mourned the loss of this plant because a cutting was given to me by a friend who has since passed away. Whenever I saw my plant, I always thought of her and now that the plant is gone, I find my thoughts of her aren’t as frequent.

The plant caught my eye one afternoon several years ago while I was visiting my friend, and we sat on her back deck where she put all of her house plants over the summer. The deck was shaded enough to keep her dark-leaved house plants cool and protected from the heat of mid-day summer sun. One plant caught my attention over all the others. There were a few minor cascades of scarlet-red flowers but it was the leaves that made an impression. They were somewhat large, unusually shaped, heavily toothed and resembled what many fantasy illustrators imagine the wings of a dragon to be.

“This is my dragon wing begonia,” my friend said, as she pinched off a small branch between her thumb and forefinger. “Take this home and put it in water, and it will root for you.”

And it did. Within a couple weeks the small cutting had accumulated several small fibrous roots that became longer and thicker over the next few weeks. When the root system looked hardy enough, I transplanted it into a container with sterile soil, gave it a good drink of water and set it in a sunny window.

I’ve grown a few different varieties of begonias over the years, but primarily my plants were more common varieties, especially the common bedding begonias, which also are fibrous rooted and are treated as annuals in our neck of the woods. So a few years later, when my plant didn’t make it through a long winter indoors, I began looking for a replacement. I found that what my friend gave me wasn’t a dragon wing begonia at all, but was likely from another species known as angel wing. I discovered that the plant that is sold as dragon wing begonia doesn’t have leaves that even closely resemble what I would call a “dragon wing.”

Once again I was duped by the common name versus botanic name conundrum. My friend only knew her plant by its common name, but the true dragon wing is the name of another variety of begonia, Begonia x argenteoguttata “Dragon Wings.” They could never be confused in person because they are so different.

Begonias are generally classified into four categories; fibrous rooted, tuberous begonias, rex begonias, and rhizomatous begonias. Rhizomatous begonias spread across the surface of the soil by way of their thick, fleshy rhizomes. Fibrous-rooted begonias is probably the largest group and includes the angel-wing types. But varieties in this group also can be compact with waxy leaves, and there are even fuzzy-leaf varieties.

Rex begonias have the most colorful leaves with flowers that are insignificant by comparison. This plant isn’t grown for its flowers anyway because the leaves steal the show. Like the angel wings, the leaves are large and unlike the fibrous rooted varieties, rex begonias prefer shady conditions. Rex begonias have fibrous leaves, but its because of their leaves that they are classified separately.

Tuberous begonias are exactly that, plants grown from tubers and although they produce the prettiest of all the begonia flowers, they also are the most difficult. Requiring a dormant period to rebloom, tuberous begonias need to be lifted from the soil before frost and stored indoors for the winter.

An interesting fact about begonias is that no matter their size, all varieties have asymmetrical leaves that are shaped like ears. Some are smooth while others can be slightly or deeply toothed, like the faux dragon wing begonia my friend gave me so many years ago.