By: Anthea Phillips
BERGONIAS are familiar plants to most people, often grown as pot plants in shady parts of the house. They are found from tropical America and the islands of the Caribbean, (where the first begonia was discovered in 1690), across the Atlantic to Africa and Asia. World-wide there are thought to be around 1500 species or more. Most can be recognized by the fleshy stems and the succulent leaves which have a distinctive uneven (asymmetric) base, where they join the stem.
The First Begonia
The first begonia introduced to cultivation in Europe, was Begonia nitida, from Jamaica, in 1777. With the lovely name of the Shining-leaved Begonia, it was described as bearing “….large copious showy flowers during most of the summer months when it makes a fine appearance with its pink panicles and large glossy foliage”.
The Wax Begonias – “Begonia x semperflorens”
It was not until the 1800’s, however, that Begonia cultivation in Europe really took off, starting from the chance introduction of seeds of Begonia cucullata, (originally described as B. semperflorens), from Mexico, sent with other plants, to Jean Linden of the Berlin Botanic Garden in 1821.
Very easy to grow, this is an ancestor of the “Begonia x semperflorens” group, known for its continuous flowering. These begonias are also called Wax Begonias, because of the waxy, shiny leaves.
Tuberous Begonias – “Begonia x tuberhybrida”
A second group of Begonias, cultivated in cooler climates, for their showy flowers, (which include huge double-flowered varieties, up to six inches across), are the Tuberous begonias, or the “Begonia x tuberhybrida” group, developed from species originally from the mountains of South America.
These are used mainly as potted house-plants or to create garden beds of brilliant, brash colour, but they have a dormancy period when both leaves and flowers die back. These are not really grown in Sabah, and are included here only for the sake of completeness.
The Leafy Begonias – “Begona x rex-cultorum”
There is a third major group of cultivars as well – mostly of tropical Asian origin, and these are the ones of most interest to people living in Sabah.
These form the “Begonia x rex-cultorum” group, and are grown mainly for the, “almost endless variety of speckled, painted, swirled, tucked and scalloped leaves in shades of green, chartreuse, mauve, merlot, white, and almost black”.
The “Rex-cultorum” begonias have their main origin in Begonia rex, a species from northern India, that was discovered in 1826, in a consignment of orchids, again sent to Jean Linden of the Berlin Botanic Garden, and described in 1859 by the Director of Kew Gardens as, “…certainly the most lovely of the many lovely species of Begonia with which we are acquainted”.
The “x” in all the group names above signifies that these are all cultivars, bred by man, producing hybrids and varieties seen only in cultivation, often much fancier than anything found in the wild! There are now more than 10,000 begonia cultivars grown world-wide!
Begonias are not just beautiful. The Wax Begonia, mentioned above, (B.cucullata), has edible leaves, said to have a crunchy texture and slightly acidic, lemony flavour – in its homeland of Mexico the leaves are commonly eaten as a vegetable, and are sold in local markets. It is also commonly grown in villages around Kinabalu Park as an ornamental but I do not know if the leaves are eaten here.
Salads and Sandwiches
In Europe and America, sliced petals are used in salads or sandwiches, or whole petals dipped in yoghurt and served as an appetizer. Make sure the plants have NOT been treated with pesticides if you want to try them yourself!
There are other edible begonias – Green Deane’s blog, “Eat the weeds and other things too”, tells us, “There are reports of numerous other Begonias being consumed in several countries, from Mexico to India. They are a good source of food and medicine and vitamin C. Begonias have been cooked up as potherbs in Japan, India, Indonesia and Myanmar. They are used to make a sauce for meat and fish in Indonesia, salads in China, Indonesia and Brazil. In Java, the Philippines and Brazil they are also flavoring ingredients. In northern Mexico and China they are a favorite wild snack for children.”
Sabah’s Edible Begonias
In Sabah, Begonia lazat, discovered along the Kinabatangan in 1995, by the conservationist Reza Azmi, has leaves that are eaten raw in salads or cooked with prawns and chilli by the local Orang Sungei – the name ‘lazat’ is derived from the Orang Sungei name. Other wild begonias are sold as vegetables in local markets in Sarawak and Brunei. Cultivated Tuberous begonias also have edible flowers, but these are said to contain large amounts of oxalic acid and should not be consumed by individuals suffering from gout, kidney stones, or rheumatism.
Many Begonias are also used for treating a variety of illnesses. A Chinese species, Begonia grandis, has, in China, “long been valued as an ornamental, medicinal, edible and cultural plant”, at least since 1400, and is illustrated in Chinese paintings and on porcelain.
Because it grew in damp, shady places it was classified as a ‘cooling’ plant and used especially for treating fevers, but also to disinfect wounds, as a painkiller and to improve blood circulation. So highly valued was it, that it was introduced to Japan sometime around 1641.
The leaves of another Chinese species, Begonia fimbristipula are made into a bitter, purple-coloured tea, still popular in parts of China, and supposedly good for rheumatism and coughs.
In India, the use of B.malabarica has been shown to have an effect on glucose levels in rats, echoing its use in the treatment of diabetes in people.
Leech Bites & Toe Wounds
In India and Nepal, Begonia picta is used widely to treat respiratory tract infections, and in Nepal for preventing leech bites. It is also said to be a very effective cure for toe wounds caused by standing for long periods in the paddy fields during the rainy season, planting rice.
In western Nepal, people use the stems and leaf stalks of Begonia picta to make a red dye used for painting hands and feet during the festival of ‘Srawane Sankranti’, which is celebrated to mark the end of the rice-planting season. More than 30 species of begonia are recorded for their edible or medicinal use in Asia. There are doubtless many more, both in Asia, Africa and tropical America, with medicinal properties, used for a variety of complaints, though the most common use seems to be to treat digestive problems and stomach-ache. You may like to try a Wax begonia leaf, (making sure it has NOT been treated with pesticides or chemical fertilisers), next time you have indigestion!