Older Flower Varieties in Hanging Baskets
Hanging baskets bring life to old flowers
Begonias are about the most unfashionable flowers you can think of.
But one hanging container was all it took for Emma Townshend to start
championing a revival...
Beauties not beasts, the exotic delights of the begonia maculata,
metallica and boliviensis
The begonia is one of the worst plants that has ever existed. It has
hideous flowers, disgusting leaves, and it looks like it belongs in some
old lady's porch covered in dust, throwing up a cloud of mysterious
little flies when you brush past.
Or at least, that used to be my opinion. The first thing to change my
mind was the offer of a free hanging basket of begonias. "Do I have to?"
I thought at first. "But if it's a nice wicker basket," I planned
cunningly, "I can rip out the begonias and plant fuchsias instead." It
was a nice wicker basket, but the moment for replanting never arrived
and so the begonias hung all summer, putting out trails of tiny little
diamond-shaped orange flowers. They added an exotic touch to the garden,
with their bright colours and geometric green leaves. My conversion had
Terry Tasker, the National Collection Holder for begonias in
Southport, on the banks of the Mersey, had a more dramatic
road-to-Damascus experience. Gruffly enthusiastic, he sounds like Ricky
Tomlinson. "Four hours at the Southport Flower Show changed my life for
the next 26 years," he tells me. "I was dragged there by my wife kicking
and screaming. I was looking for the beer tent, and the begonias just
blew my mind. I can't grow anything else, not with the same passion."
Tasker knows that his love of these plants is not shared by all. "The
Monty Dons of this world, the producers of the TV programmes - they come
to our displays at Tatton Park, and they just look and then move on." He
tells me about one famous presenter scheduled to interview him. On
arrival, the celebrity took one look at Tasker's stand and flounced off,
saying: "I don't do begonias."
So what's going on with these love 'em or hate 'em plants? Garden
historian Katie Campbell, author of object-of-desire Icons of Twentieth
Century Landscape Design, ventures: "Ah, well, they are terribly
unfashionable now, but they were used a lot in art-deco gardens. They
have those glossy, green, startling, veiny leaves and decorative
flowers, and the colours are so gem-like. They look like deco jewellery,
with those gorgeous reflective surfaces."
Imagine my wry smile, then, finding that Christopher Lloyd wrote:
"Fergus and I have a passion for older begonias. If we were reduced to
growing only one genus, that would be it." Lloyd and his head gardener
Fergus Garrett created one of the horticultural hoo-has of the century
when they ripped out the rose garden at Lloyd's family home at Great
Dixter, Sussex, and planted an exotic garden.
Lloyd's reputation as one of the greatest gardeners and garden
writers to have ever lived was already sealed when he died in 2006. But
his last book, left in manuscript, is now being published as Exotic
Planting for Adventurous Gardeners - all about the subtropical garden he
and Garrett made. Several pages are devoted to begonias - in particular,
those gorgeous, glossy leaves, from "Burle Marx" to jagged "Little
At 85, Lloyd could still set the gardening agenda, so his passionate
claims for the oh-so-outre begonia may well be heard. It won't be the
first time that he has rehabilitated a whole class of older plants lost
to gardeners through the vagaries of fashion - many people credit him
with the recent vogue for dahlias, perhaps even the explosion of exotic
Back in my garden, my basket turned out to be Begonia boliviensis.
The flowers, which had looked like the tail of a kite from far away,
were almost like fuchsia blooms close up, but in a vivid, tangy-citrus
colour that had a zingy effect against the green leaves and purple
stems. "You'll need to take it up in winter," says Tasker, "and check
for vine weevil in the compost." He sounds like a mum leaving
instructions for a first-time babysitter. But he need not worry - my
conversion is complete.