PUBLISHED: 11:51 11 April 2008 | UPDATED: 15:09 20 February 2013
A passion for begonias led David Rhodes and John Rockcliffe to set up a specialist nursery in Nazeing. Philippa Pearson discovers the fascination of these houseplants
THINK of begonias and summer bedding plants usually come to mind. Reliable and colourful, they have adorned many a hanging basket and bedding display throughout the country. But did you know that some begonias are grown for their striking architectural foliage? These begonias cover the rex, cane and tuberous types and are mostly grown indoors as houseplants, although some are hardy enough to grow outdoors.
In 1991, John Rockcliffe joined David Rhodes' nursery at Nazeing, bringing a plant his dad had given to him which had originally belonged to his aunt. John had no idea what the plant was, David was intrigued too, and some research was quickly initiated. The plant was a Begonia x corallina 'Lucerna' and had handsome foliage. The nursery propagated this and a passion for foliage begonias was born.
Wanting to know more about these interesting plants, John and David bought a book on begonias at RHS Wisley written by specialist Bill Wall and, some time later, decided to get in touch with him. Sadly, Bill had died previous to this contact, but his widow, Barbara, was happy for them to come and see Bill's collection of begonias, housed in a small greenhouse in the garden.
'I was really surprised by the breadth and range of plants in the foliage begonia group,' says John. 'There are so many plants and each of them is different, whether from the shape of the foliage or the colours and marking on the leaves. This is what I find so special about these plants.'
Every time John and David were in Surrey they visited Barbara to see Bill's begonia collection, buying plants to take back to their nursery. Eventually, Barbara felt she could no longer look after the collection and asked John and David to take the plants away and care for them.
Begonias were not terribly fashionable then, but Bill had amassed around 100 different types of the plant. As a group, begonias are one of the largest and, enthused by the genus and with Bill's plants safely back in Essex, John and David further added to the collection, growing some from seed until they were awarded National Plant Collection status by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG).
John and David's mission to share the beauty of begonias with others naturally led them to putting on displays at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show where their first exhibit, more than 12 years ago, was awarded a Silver-Gilt medal with three Gold medals gained since then. John is always delighted to hear visitor's comments as they see their stunning exhibit, in particular the gasps of surprise when visitors realise the plants are begonias and wonder at the striking leaf colours, shapes and textures.
Some of John's favourite begonias include Begonia rex 'Carolina Moon' whose large leaves have a pink centre fading to silvery white at the margins and B. r. 'Roi de Roses', which has showy silver veins on a gorgeous dusky rose-coloured background.
A few of the species' tuberous types are hardy enough to live out in the garden. Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana is a perennial with ovate, olive-green leaves and clusters of small, fragrant pale-pink or white flowers; the low growing habit makes it ideal for the front of sunny borders.
I've also seen tender foliage begonias planted en masse in borders to create an exotic effect but you'd need to treat this style of planting like bedding schemes, bringing plants inside after summer.
RHS Silver-Gilt medal winner Philippa Pearson is a garden designer and professional horticulturalist.
Call 01767 651253 or email Philippa at email@example.com