Many gardeners think they need to have a lot of color in order to have a beautiful garden, but that isn’t the case. There is much to gain from plants whose main attribute is their foliage. Whether it offers fun variegation, an unusual texture, or a unique shape, foliage is just as important to a garden as flowers. Rex begonias are one of the most unique foliage plants for shady gardens and containers. They come in a range of leaf colors and shapes, but among the loveliest is Begonia Escargot.
All about Begonia Escargot
A variety of a group of begonias known as Rex begonias (Rex cultorum group), Escargot is a cultivar that reaches about 6 to 12 inches in height. In warm climates where freezing winter temperatures do not occur, Rex begonias are evergreen perennials that live for many years. In cold climates, we grow them as summer annuals, enjoying them for a single growing season then often letting them succumb to frost. However, later in this article I will share some ways you can keep your Escargot Begonia alive for many years, even in a cold climate.
It’s easy to see how Escargot got its name. The leaves of this plant are organized in a spiral, like the shell of a snail, with a stripe of pale-colored variegation twisting to the center of almost every leaf. Their curls draw just as much attention as a colorful bloom, and with each leaf growing almost as large as an outstretched hand, they demand centerstage in a shady pot or corner.
The foliage of Begonia Escargot is covered in fine hairs, making them less palatable to deer, rabbits, and other nibblers. Escargot and other Rex begonia hybrids do produce pale pink flowers, but they are generally small in size and nothing to write home about.
How to grow Escargot Begonia
Like other begonias, this variety prefers to grow in full shade to partial shade. They also like high humidity. I grow them in pots on the patio, right against the back of my house. The area is on the north side of my home so the building shades the plants all day long. My Begonia Escargot plants receive no direct sun whatsoever and are happy as a clam. If you have a site that receives a few hours of sun in the morning or the late afternoon/evening, they’ll do just fine there, too. Avoid direct sun in the afternoon.
If your Escargot Begonias are planted directly into the shade garden, add a few shovels full of compost to the site before planting them. If you have heavy, clay-based soils, don’t plant them in a low-lying area that’s poorly drained. Begonias are prone to fungal diseases and root rot if their roots or foliage are constantly wet.
I prefer to grow my Escargot Begonias in containers because I can control the soil conditions and make sure they aren’t kept too wet (or too dry). When I fill the pots, I blend high-quality, organic potting soil with finished compost in a 50:50 ratio. The pots are watered less frequently than my other containers. Not only because they are in full shade and don’t dry out as quickly, but also because of the potential fungal issues I mentioned above.
How to water Escargot Begonias
To keep the foliage disease free and unblemished, target irrigation water directly onto the soil. Keep the foliage as dry as possible. All Rex begonias like humid conditions, but if water is left to sit on the foliage or against the stems, the plant can easily develop botrytis, leaf spot, and other fungal issues. Water whenever the soil is dry to the touch. Remember, they do not like constantly wet soils, so don’t overwater. It is better to slightly underwater them than it is to overwater. Remove dead foliage immediately to prevent disease.
Some gardeners prefer to water their Begonias from the bottom by placing the pot in a sink or tray of water and letting the soil absorb the water up through the pot’s drainage holes. If you use this method, allow the pot to absorb the water for about an hour, then take it out of the water and let it fully drain before putting it back into its display location.
Overwintering Begonia Escargot Indoors
If you’d like to keep an Escargot Begonia for many years, there are two ways to overwinter it. Option one is to bring it indoors for the winter and grow it as a houseplant. To do this, as soon as the nighttime temperatures dip below 55°F in the fall, bring the plant inside. If the plant is growing in the ground, dig it up. Then pot it into a clean plastic pot, using new sterile potting soil. Then move it indoors.
Place your Escargot Begonia in bright room, out of direct sunlight. A few feet away from a sunny window will suffice. You do not need grow lights. Avoid exposure to drafts and forced air heating vents. Begonia Escargot much prefers conditions that are more humid than the average home. Purchase a humidity tray to set the plants on and increase the humidity around the plant, but do not mist it or get the foliage wet as this could lead to rot or disease. Brown, crisp tips on the leaves are a sign that the humidity isn’t high enough. If there’s enough available light, a bathroom is an ideal overwintering site. Indoors, plan to water every week to 10 days, allowing the pot to drain fully after each watering.
Overwintering Begonia Escargot in Dormancy
If you aren’t interested in growing Begonia Escargot as a houseplant but you still want to overwinter it, let the plant shift into winter dormancy in a cool basement or garage. To do this, move the pot into a cool area (between 50 and 60 degrees) with only a small amount of light. Stop watering it for about 6 weeks. The foliage will all die off and it will look like the plant is dead, but the underground rhizomes are alive and well. Once the 6 weeks have passed, water it lightly, then wait another 4 weeks to water again. Continue this 4-week irrigation cycle until spring arrives when you’ll slowly introduce the plant to more light and begin to water it more regularly and thoroughly. It won’t be long until your Begonia Escargot is lush and full again.
Fertilizing your begonia
From spring through early autumn, mix some organic water-soluble houseplant fertilizer into the irrigation water every two to three weeks. Once mid-autumn arrives and you move the plants indoors, stop fertilizing. You don’t want to encourage active growth through the winter. Start fertilizing again in the spring, a few weeks before you move the plants back outdoors again. Don’t take them back outside until well after the danger of frost has passed.
Once you get the hang of growing Begonia Escargot, consider trying your hand at growing other Rex Begonia varieties or cane begonias like the gorgeous ‘Gryphon’ Begonia. There is a stunning array of begonias, with hundreds of named varieties to choose from.