flowers

Begonia boliviensis and Its Hybrids

The unique, elegant beauty of the tuberous begonia species, Begonia boliviensis (Bolivian Mountain Begonia) is unmatched. It's pendulous, slender, vase-shaped blooms are bright orange, almost beak-like, and cascade down the plant in a sweep of color alongside sprays of small, deep green, angelwing-type leaves. Mature plants develop a pleasing bushy habit and can reach up to three feet (1 meter).

The pendant flowers of Begonia boliviensis dangle like summer jewelry and look best in containers or hanging baskets.

The pendant flowers of Begonia boliviensis dangle like summer jewelry and look best in containers or hanging baskets.

Culture of this Bolivian native is like that of most other tuberous begonias. Partial sun is preferred as is fertile, moisture-retaining medium with very good drainage. It grows from USDA hardiness zones 8 to 11, though there are reports it can overwinter in zone 7 with protection. Where hardy, it's late to break dormancy, particularly in zone 8. In colder climates, it's best to overwinter the tubers or container-grown plants in a cool garage.

Begonia boliviensis will tolerate humidity and moderate summer heat, though it prefers milder summer weather (most plants from mountainous areas do). Water it regularly. Container-grown specimens are always more demanding of water and require daily applications. Fertilize regularly to encourage continuous flowering. This is a self-cleaning ornamental, which means it does not require deadheading. It's fairly pest and disease free, however tuber and stem rot can occur if soil drainage is not adequate. This is a fairly easy plant to grow from seed. Start the tiny, dust-like seeds early (six months in advance) to give them a head start for the growing season.  (Swallowtail carries the seed.) Full sized plants are far more expensive, so I usually opt for seed route if I want more than one plant.

The cultivar 'Bonfire' is an extra vibrant selection with larger flowers and a slightly more compact habit.

The cultivar 'Bonfire' is an extra vibrant selection with larger flowers and a slightly more compact habit.

There are lots of other great cultivars and hybrids hitting the garden market. The most common of these is the more compact, large-flowered 'Bonfire'. The hybrids in the Mandalay Series also have boliviensis parentage and their flowers show it. They are also compact and come if shades of white, pink and orange. Mandalay Flamingo is a pink-flowered boliviensis hybrid that's offered through Proven Winners. Mandalay Pearl is another nice selection with its neutral flowers that will blend well with any container arrangement.

Friends will ask about these begonias if you plant them in your beds or containers. They're that impressive and with good care they'll shine all season into fall, no problem.

Begonia Mandalay Pearl

Begonia Mandalay Pearl

Begonia Mandalay Flamingo

Begonia Mandalay Flamingo


Baby Bouquets

Miniature bouquets are my girl's favorite new thing. They gather small jars, bottles, egg cups and little vases and fill them with whatever flowers they can find in the garden. Then we place the flowers in a 20% Sprite, 80% water solution for food. This is a great way to teach kids that flowers last longer with food, and surprisingly watered lemon soda is nearly perfect stuff. The citric acid keeps the stem vasculature open and deters bacterial and fungal growth while the sugars provide the flowers with needed energy. It's a fun lesson.


Today's bouquets were particularly photo-worthy.

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A Pricklypear Situation

Hardy cacti? Believe it or not, yes! It’s true that most of these prickly succulents are not winter hardy, but a few oddballs have adapted to thrive in even the coldest parts of the country. Some of the best are Opuntia species, commonly known as pricklypears. These plants offer lovely spring flowers and striking, paddle-shaped stems that lend interest in a number of sunny garden situations, from rock gardens to exotic container plantings.

The red fruit and unique habit of  Opuntia phaeacantha  looks striking next to the rich fall colors of tall sedums.

The red fruit and unique habit of Opuntia phaeacantha looks striking next to the rich fall colors of tall sedums.

Opuntia is a diverse and widespread genus of 150-200 species existing from Canada down to Argentina. They’re most easily characterized by their paddle-shaped, photosynthetic stems (joined and extended in segments), large, showy flowers and bulbous red fruit that clusters along the paddles late in the season. As many people might expect from a cactus, Opuntia spines are pointy, but they’re more unique than those of your average cacti. The needles are sharp and long, and the areoles (sites where the spines arise) have clusters of glochids – minute, brittle, barbed spines that detach easily and become embedded in the skin. (Ouch!)

Of all the Opuntia species, only several are adapted to colder climates. They exist in more northerly states or at higher altitudes and have physiological adaptations that enable them to fight the cold. When temperatures begin to drop toward freezing, the plants’ pads lose water and appear to deflate. This water loss protects the plants from freezing damage. The pads also turn from bright green in summer to shades of reddish-brown and burgundy in winter – a color change that lends protection from winter sun damage.

Hardy pricklypears aren’t always the easiest to find, but a few are commonly available and highly garden-worthy. The more popular and available plants are usually the best for budding cactus enthusiasts to try. Here are four hardy species worth considering:

The pale yellow flowers of  Opuntia fragilis  are delicate and beautiful.

The pale yellow flowers of Opuntia fragilis are delicate and beautiful.

Opuntia fragilis (brittle pricklypear). Featuring creamy-yellow summer flowers, Opuntia fragilis is the hardiest of all the pricklypears. This remarkably cold-tolerant species is native to grasslands, limestone outcrops, gravely sites and alpine and subalpine regions as far north as northern British Columbia in Canada. It’s distinguished by smaller, slightly rounded pads and is commonly found growing on rocky outcrops, so it’s perfect for rock gardening. Unlike nearly every other Opuntia species, brittle pricklypear can take light shade, and even though it grows in the coldest of regions, it can also take some heat.

The golden blooms of  Opuntia humifusa  offer heavy loads of pollen and nectar.

The golden blooms of Opuntia humifusa offer heavy loads of pollen and nectar.

The beautiful and prolific Opuntia humifusa (devil’s tongue) is the most common of the hardy pricklypears. It can be found in drier, rocky or sandy sites east of the Rockies. Those living along the Atlantic Coast may be familiar with devil’s tongue because it’s native to coastal plant communities and often planted due to its remarkable tolerance to salt, wind and high heat.

In late spring or early summer, devil’s tongue produces lots of large, bright yellow or orangish-yellow flowers along its pads. These glow in the sun and are favored by bees, which become covered in the dusty, yellow pollen of their anthers. By fall, deep red fruit appears along the pads and persists into winter. As this pricklypear ages, its pads drop to the ground and root, so over time a single plant can form a substantial clump.

The name Opuntia phaeacantha (tulip pricklypear) sounds ornamentally promising, doesn’t it? The tulip-shaped flowers of this hardy, western pricklypear bloom in late spring or early summer. Floral color varies widely and may be yellow, apricot, pink or red. (Those in the pink and red range are the most striking and interesting.) All offer red fruit in fall. The broad pads are armed with fierce spines that are as painful as they are visually interesting. There are several notable cultivars to choose from, including the apricot-flowered ‘Plum’ and the orangish-coral-flowered ‘Persimmon’ – both hybrids created by Claude A. Barr, a Great Plains cattleman and noted native plant hybridizer.

Dense areoles and spines cover the pads of the prickly wonder, Opuntia polyacantha (plains pricklypear). Large, chalice-shaped flowers of clear yellow or orangish-red appear in late spring or early summer, and brownish-red fruit follows later in the season. Hardiness level depends on where the plant comes from. Its native distribution extends from western Texas all the way up to Alberta, Canada.

With minimal care and effort, you can have a handsome Opuntia planting. The best way to start growing these great plants is in a  trough or large container. Full sun and coarse, sharply drained soil with a neutral pH is needed for best growth and flowering. Top-dress the soil’s surface with natural-looking pebbles for a clean, attractive look. As with all sharp and potentially dangerous plants, pricklypears should always be handled with thick, rose gloves and planted away from areas where small children and pets play – yet still kept in a spot where they can be enjoyed for their unique, striking beauty.