By Gary R. Bachman
Coastal Research & Extension Center
As much as I like decorating with colorful poinsettias during the Christmas season, I’m always on the lookout for nontraditional plants that can add interest and be just as effective in spreading holiday cheer.
One of the most unusual plants I’ve seen is miniature cherry tomato, in full fruit, displayed for holiday sales. While I didn’t run out and buy one of those, a plant I have admired for many years for the shady summer garden is Rex begonia.
In the winter, Rex Begonias are primarily indoor plants known for their colorful and textured foliage. They get their name from the Latin word for king, and the foliage certainly looks royal. The coarse-textured leaves are colorful with streaks and splashes of silver, cream and burgundy.
This group of plants has the potential to move from being a beautiful container plant to a cornerstone of Christmas decorations.
I find that the symmetry of the spiraling shape of the leaves adds to the beauty of Rex begonia. This spiral is repeated in nature from the shells of the nautilus to great galaxies, and it is very pleasing shape.
The variety Hilo Holiday is one of my first choices. The foliage has a bright, reddish-pink middle framed in silvery tones. The leaf border is green with splatters of pink and silver.
The Iron Cross is more subdued in color but is big on texture. Its medium-green leaves have a pebbled and quilted surface that is almost rough to the touch. They have chocolate brown highlights on the center veins.
Rex begonias are easy to propagate using leaf cuttings. Place a leaf with the base side down in a container of moist potting media. Put a resealable baggie over the container, and place it in indirect light. New plants will form at the leaf base.
The spiraling colors of Rex begonia in an endless number of combinations can liven up any holiday occasion.
Another begonia that is perfect for the indoor holiday season is the elatior begonia. Typically considered a summer annual, these plants are available year-round from florists and greenhouses. There are selections that produce single and double flowers in a variety of colors.
Elatior begonias need bright light for the best bloom. Place them in a south-facing window that receives indirect light; direct exposure results in “burned” leaves and few flowers. Like poinsettias, these plants are perfectly happy at normal room temperatures when kept away from heating ducts and drafts near entry doors.
Begonias need higher humidity than most indoor plants. An easy solution is to place them on a tray filled with decorative pebbles or gravel and water. Water evaporating from the surface of the pebbles creates a microclimate that provides the needed humidity.
Though these plants like humidity, they do not like being overwatered. Make sure the potting media is dry to the touch before watering. Keep soil nutrition at the correct levels by applying liquid African violet fertilizer diluted to half strength twice a month.
So consider finishing out your Christmas decorating with a nontraditional but festive begonia.