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Home > Begonian > Volume 71 (September/October 2004)

Conservation Comments: Growing B. 404
by Bill Claybaugh

Since the summer of 2002 I have been struggling to grow the unnamed species Begonia U404. This plant is from Asia and has all the beauty one can imagine. It is one of the few begonias with palmately compound leaves, and has a "rhizome at or below the surface, with upright stems". It also is a very difficult plant to grow, at least on the gulf coast of Texas. Over the past two years I have had several U404 plants, all originating from Florida growers. This article is a recount of my many failures and of my recent success in both growing and in propagating this beauty.

First, I obtained two plants in 4-inch pots at the ABS National Convention in Houston in May 2002. The plants were brought home and kept in my small shade house where temperatures ranged from 70 degrees at night to 95 degrees in mid summer. Humidity was kept about 50 to 80 percent, the natural gulf coast humidity being supplemented with large areas of wet rocks in the shade house floor. The plants seemed to do OK, but slowly lost leaf after leaf. This was not thought to be too uncommon because many cultivars, those with similar growth habit, also lose leaves in hot weather. I tried several propagation methods that usually prove successful. I planted stem cuttings, leaf cuttings, and even leaflet cuttings in all manners of soils, etc. but to no avail. I finally moved the faltering B. U404 plants out under one of my large oak trees in the company of similar plants such as B. 'Little Brother Montgomery', 'Charles Jaros', 'Caribbean Clown', 'Cynthia Bishop', etc. This growing area receives mottled sun throughout the day, and overhead watering every other day. All begonia do very well in this environment throughout the summer, except for U404, which just continued to slowly deteriorate, finally to only one plant with one stem and one leaf.

In desperation, I took the final leaf and bet everything on being able to get new plants by leaf propagation. I cut its leaf into its eight leaflets and put them in a terrarium environment, i.e. in perlite, under florescence lights, and mild conditions. To my pleasure, each leaflet rooted and within two months I had eight small plants. These plants grew to about three inches high over the next few months, so I moved them into 2-inch pots. Now, flush with success, I started giving some of these new "hatchling" to Astro Branch members. Suddenly, to my shock, all of the small plants melted away, both mine and those that I had sent to foster homes.

This might have been the end to a dreary tale, except in the fall of 2003; I was able to get two new plants from Tim Anderson, Palm Hammock Orchid Estates. By the time I got the plants home, it was getting cool, so I moved them into large terrariums along with other delicate varieties. These terrariums are 15 X 24 inches in size and are 18 inches high. They have a layer of wet perlite in the bottom and are exposed to 50 percent sun for about 6 hours of the day. This shade house is maintained at a 40-degree minimum and usually stays below 70 degrees in the day. To my shock and pleasure, the two new plants started growing at such a rate, that I had to trim the stems every week or two, just to keep them below the critical 18-inch height. The cut stems and excess leaves were put into the same terrarium environment but seemed to rot before rooting. After numerous tries, I finally got one stem to root and about five leaflets to put on plantlets.

Somewhat later, while doing some routine maintenance, I realized that one of the plants was putting on small aerial roots at almost all nodes along its stems. This was a new development, something I had not seen before. After some thought, I recognized that with time and at the correct temperature (cool) and humidity (very wet), the plants responded with an abundance of aerial roots and rapid growth. Many begonia are epiphytic in nature, lying on the surface of rocks or vegetative matter, with their roots above ground and exposed. I obviously had supplied an environment similar to its natural growing conditions. As before, I was forced to repeatedly cut the top-most portion of the stems from the plants, but this time I always had a well-rooted node along with at least one good leaf in each cutting. These cuttings were placed in a mix of 75/25 percent mix of perlite/peat moss and returned to the terrarium. To my pleasure, every cutting continued to grow, without rotting, and I suddenly had numerous new plants of U404.

Several months have now passed and I have moved the larger plants out of the terrarium and into a more normal shade house atmosphere with only 50 to 80 per cent humidity. So far, everything is going great, the plants are growing normally and require frequent top trimming, but I no longer have aerial roots at the nodes. If you purchased a U404 at the Houston Convention, and still have it alive, I would like to hear your story on culture. Some of these precious jewels need special care, and this is certainly one of them.

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