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Begonia's Spirals

Anyone a bit obsessed with begonias of any type has probably noticed a shared pattern among them. Across many species and the dozens of varieties- begonias have a spiral Fibonacci pattern to them. Their leaf blades develop as a turning spiral getting smaller and tighter into the center, creating a tiered layer-cake spiral look, often highlighted by a matching color pattern. This gives them a distinctly asymmetrical shape that is iconic "begonia". Some species look very wing-shaped, giving rise to the "angle wing" species.

Begonia rex varieties show very nice spiraling and color patterns- by Jean Weller

But if you look closer at a happily blooming begonia, you'll find first that there are 2 different flowers on the same plant: Male & Female. The plants are labeled as "imperfect" for their flowers, simply meaning the flowers aren't packing both sex-parts in the same flower and could possibly fertilize itself. Having separate male and female flowers on the same plant makes begonias a monoecious plant ("on the same house"- separate sexes but on one 'mono' plant). It is among the female flowers we fine more spirals; those with pistils to hopefully collect the pollen from a nearby male flower's stamen. Spiral or corkscrew pistils, spiraling out of the center of the flower's 2 petals. They typically have rather simple flower morphology, not super showing and an come can look like they have oddly only 2 petals (most dicot plants have 4-5 flower part sets). But it's usually because 1 pair is minute. Some species and particularly the hybrids and ornamental created cultivars can have many petals almost like a rose.

a hybrid 'double' cultivar type of begonia, by Bernard Spragg of NZ

The pistillate flowers

(hello LLllllllllaadies) ;)

are also interestingly more prevalent on healthier plants with more access to nutrients. If you find begonias growing in lower-nutrient soils like sand they will probably have more male (staminate) flowers. This isn't surprising because it will take more nutrients to support making seeds, which the pistillate fem-flowers do. Making the eggs which will become the next generation costs more resources for a plant than just making pollen. Staminate flowers only supply the pollen. Plant sperm if ya wanna just get right out with it. Making ya rethink allergies yet?

As cool as it would be for the stamen of the begonia flowers to release pollen from a spiral too, it seems to only be the pistils. I discovered these corkscrew lady-parts of begonias a while back and immediately wanted to paint that. I have finally gotten around to that painting, capturing a close-up from a lovely bright red pistillate flower. The petals can also have a sort of glittery look to them, as can some leaves. Seriously, just go stare deeply at some begonias. They are all kinds of neat and purdy!!

male begonia flower

This was a fun quick painting, only a few stages.

original photo I used

Could there be more reasons to love begonia flowers? Um yes. Did you know most species of begonias (from the Begonia genus, of the Begoniaceae family) are edible. And not the way that pansies are edible. Those taste like very very mild grass. Aka- slightly green-flavored nothingness. Pop a begonia flower in your mouth (maybe rinse it first if it wasn't from your indoor plant like mine) and you will taste a lovely tangy fruity flavor very reminiscent of rhubarb. Naturally I put some as garnish on my fresh strawberry rhubarb pie, admiring the glistening petals before I all out filled my face with bite after delectable and bego-eautiful bite. But it's not just the flowers that are edible on begonias. Some species' leaves, tuberous roots or even their stems can be edible. But many are high in oxalic acid which is problematic for those with kidney stones or rheumatism, if you eat a lot. Spinach also has a lot of oxalic acid, giving you some perspective.

amazing hairs along the leaf petiols of a begonia

Fun random fact- the leaf extract (using alcohol solvents) of the common landscape bedding-planted species B. semperflorens ("always blooming") smells like raspberries. I did not however drink it. But it was a lovely fuchsia color too.

Begonia semperflorens- by Alabama Extension

Edible species of begonia include:

  1. B. annulata (aka B. hatacoa)

  2. B. auriculata

  3. B. barbata

  4. B. fimbristipula (used to make a tea)

  5. B. gracilis

  6. B. grandis var evansiana

  7. B. hernandioides

  8. B. malabarica

  9. B. mannii

  10. B. palmata

  11. B. picta

  12. B. plebeja (stems edible if peeled, sap is used to make a drink)

  13. B. rex

  14. B. roxburghii (edible if cooked)

  15. B. semperflorens

What I find odd, is supposedly the common Begonia semperflorens is used as bedding plantings because deer don't like it much, yet we can eat it. Since when will deer pass up a plant we can eat but isn't super stinky? Begonia don't smell much. Do deer smell something we don't? I may need to experiment with my local does that like to lick the birdfeeder. Weird deer. Sorry, mental ramblings of a botany mind...

Once the flowers have successfully made some seeds, their fruits develop like a stubbier version of the star-fruit with broad ridges. You can easily tell a pistillate flower because it will already have this structure forming below the twin clam-like petals.

Open male flowers with unopened visible female flower below. By Carloss Criss

Begonia is named in honor of a late 17th century French dignitary who became the governor of New France, now today's Quebec, Canada. Michael Bégon was an avid plant collector whom his friend and botanist Charles Plumier (you may recognize from the genus Plumeria) named his newly documented Begonia plant group after. They found these plants in the tropic areas of Central & South America, some of Africa, and Asia. While none are native to the US, plenty can grow here both indoors and outdoors. Like most tropical plants, they will not survive a hard freeze though. I like mine indoors where I can stare longingly at them and pet their bristly long & colorful hairs. I like to think I'm not being too creepy about it, but it's hard tell how the plants feel about this.

I like thank the lovely begonia flowers when I pluck & eat them. Now that I have officially captured their sexiness on a canvas, paid eternal (maybe) homage to the genus and it's tasty unique beauty, I think they may approve.

Sometimes you have to take counsel with the piece.


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