By Roger Klinger
For many years we always planted about a dozen petunia baskets, but about five years ago, tired of deadheading and tending them all summer and into the fall, we said “Uncle.” In 2012 we experimented with tuberous begonias, and we’ve never looked back; they are so easy to care for, seem to be able to withstand a fair amount of dryness and water-neglect and thrive in our climate, producing beautiful blossoms all summer until the first hard frost. By October, the baskets have cascading waterfalls of blooms growing one two feet high and wide, and the hummingbirds love them. We also plant a number of the common wax begonias, which actually naturalize in the wild in Florida and Arizona, as they are also tough and showy and come in great shades of pink, white, or flaming red.
In addition to tuberous varieties and wax begonias, there are at least 15 more edible species of begonias. They are easy to grow either from seed or cuttings and division, and we usually overwinter a few as one reality in our mountain climate is they cannot withstand freezing temperatures here in western N.C. Begonias are a three-season plant, but fortunately they adapt easily to indoor climates for the duration of the winter. One simple caution: if you’re going to be adding these flowers and leaves to your menu, be wary of nursery stock, as many pesticides and fungicides are often sprayed on the plants.
Begonias have been cultivated for nearly 1,500 years and are very popular in the U.S. as ornamental flowers — and it doesn’t hurt that deer and rabbits avoid them! Begonias are native to South and Central America, Africa, and Asia, but their popularity is worldwide and competition is steep in regard to the creation of new cultivars for landscaping.
The range of colors is amazing, like a kaleidoscope of beauty. With the edible species, the leaves, stems, and flowers can be eaten raw or cooked. They are tart, as like many plants, they contain oxalic acid — which one finds in lemons — and mostly, they are not wild plants but cultivars. One exception I know of and grow is a hardy begonia a good friend gave me seven years ago, and it has not only multiplied but has withstood -5º weather in the ground and not only always comes back but is fairly prolific.
The edible perennial begonia variety we grow wild is begonia grandis variety evansiana. It is a stunning perennial with beautiful leaves, tolerating nearly full shade and sun, and easily grows two feet tall with cascading pink flowers and really cool winged pendant seedpods. These plants love shade and seem to reseed everywhere in the garden. This year so many came up in the walkways that I began pulling them out and adding them to planters, as the deep red undersides of the leaves are brilliant when sunlight hits them and are also tough as nails.
Begonias are high in Vitamin C and were used for centuries to prevent scurvy. In Asian countries, they are used as a potherb, included in salads and made into sauces for meat and fish and a tart lemony flavoring for stews and rice. I have found several references showing how begonia juice was used to curdle milk for cheese production, and there are even references explaining how the stems can be used as a rhubarb substitute, which makes sense as they are very tart.
On the medicinal front, begonias have been utilized over the years for toothaches, upset stomachs, and wound treatment, and as a tea for common colds. There is promising research being done as to how chemical components in begonias may assist in the treatment of cancer due to anti-tumor properties within the plants. They also show potential for treatment of diabetes and blood sugar management.
If you have a propensity for kidney stones, however, it may be wise to limit consumption of begonias and other plants that have high concentrations of oxalic acid, but nibbling and garnishes should be safe.
Our granddaughter will be visiting later this summer, and we have a goal of going out into the gardens and woods and tasting every wild edible flower we can find, adding them to salads, making teas, and experimenting with new recipes. Since she is a big fan of fish, we are hoping to generate a recipe for a butter-begonia flower sauce and try it out on fresh tuna or salmon and sautéed sunfish from the lake.
It is always a delight to be able to eat flowers; I feel it is like taking the sun, moon, and stars into our bodies, and for a while this summer begonias have been like a daily dose of lemony candy for me as I’m heading out the door.
Contact Roger at email@example.com.