he swirling psychedelic leaves of Begonia rex, the painted leaf begonia, stand out from the houseplant crowd.
Native to Myanmar, southern China and the Assam region of India, if you want more than something green to brighten up your interiors, this is the plant for you.
How to care for painted leaf begonias
For a plant with leaves so fantastic, you will have to work a little bit harder to keep this plant in tip-top condition.
Begonia rex plants do best when they are in a humid environment. Let your begonia party with other moisture-loving houseplants. By grouping a begonia with bushy ferns and elegant palms, you can create an indoor microclimate (the perfect excuse for more leaves in your life, particularly if you live with a plant-reluctant partner or flatmate).
If creating a mini-jungle is not your thing, and you’d prefer to keep your begonia on a pedestal of its own, standing it on a saucer of moist pebbles or clay balls will also help maintain humidity. Regular misting of the leaves throughout the year will also help keep leaves in pristine condition, but it is not a replacement for watering.
Make sure the roots of the begonia are kept moist, but never left sitting in water. Rex will tolerate a brief period without water if you’re planning a break, but left too long, and they may enter dormancy – or worse, die. A dormant begonia may lose all of its leaves, but the fleshy, slightly woody snake-like structure or rhizome will still be very much alive. It normally happens in winter when light levels are at their lowest. If this happens to your begonia, water it sparingly until spring, allowing it to almost complete dry out before watering again.
In spring, start watering and feeding on a more regular basis, and you’ll quickly see it bounce back to life. We dilute the liquid “tea” from our wormeries at the garden, it’s a great organic and free alternative to buying fertiliser.
Propagating painted leaf begonias
Painted leaf begonias are special when it comes to propagation. A single leaf can make upwards of 10 or more new plants. You’ll need a shallow pot or tray with a few holes for drainage, a mixture of peat-free multipurpose organic compost and horticultural sand, and a pair of scissors or a sharp knife.
First, cut a healthy leaf from your begonia. Then turn the leaf over so you are looking at the veins on the back of the leaf. It is from these veins that new plants will form. cut the leaf into small stamp-sized sections, making sure each section has a chunk of vein in it. The shape of each section is not too important, squares or triangles will both work.
Next, with the pot or tray pre-filled, bury a third of each section into the compost so the piece of leaf is standing upright. Be sure to make sure the part of the leaf buried is the part that was pointing down before you removed the leaf from the plant.
Water the cuttings sparingly, and keep them somewhere like a kitchen windowsill – too wet and they will rot, too dry and they will crisp up before the root. After a few weeks new plants should sprout from the leaf – these can then be potted on to make new plants.
George Hudson is head of plants and education at Walworth Garden, a south London charity delivering workshops, courses, therapeutic horticulture and plants for sale in a garden open to all. Follow them on Instagram at @walworthgarden