Begonia pavonina Care & Culture Growing the Peacock Begonia indoors

In Houseplants & Tropicals
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Before I get into the details of how I care for my plant, I want to be very transparent about something that may have influenced my success with my Peacock Begonia. I suspect there is a chance that my plant might be a hybrid with Begonia pavonina, not the pure species. I’ve been reading that there are “two forms” of pavonina—one which is a metallic-green-blue (and difficult to grow), and then the other which is deep-blue like mine (and easier to grow). Intuition tells me that the “easier blue form” is a hybrid (and that’s why it’s easier to grow—it’s referred to as hybrid vigor in the orchid world where a hybrid has traits from another species that make it more fit to survive in a broader ranges of conditions). If you want to read more about my comparison of the species to hybrid pavonina, jump to the bottom of this article. Also, apply information from this care sheet at your own risk.

About Begonia pavonina

This is a neat species of begonia, native to Malaysia from at high elevation (1400–1800 meters), lower-montane rainforests. However, I could not find any other reliable sources to confirm this exact elevation data.

Under normal light, the leaves are green in color; but if you catch them at the right angle, or if a light source is nearly right near your eye, the leaves reflect-back an iridescent green-blue color with an almost holographic-like vibrancy. This perceived coloration is the result of a special adaptation to survive in low light and how the plant bends light in the cells. The chloroplast slow light down in specialized structures which allows the plant to efficiently utilize 10% more energy from sunlight (compared to standard plant chlorplasts/leaves). If you want to know more about the details of this, check out this great article by Bonnie Enos over at Everything Backyard. It’s also reported that under high light or specific light spectra the leaf becomes less iridescent and can lose the blue iridescence.

Photo of iridescent-blue leaves – can see why they call it a peacock begonia!

 

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The growth style is rhizomatous and the plant grows along the top of the substrate sending off branches as it ages. Leaves can be up to 6″ long. The stem is smooth and the backs of the leaves (on my plant) are a deep crimson red.

Begonia pavonina Care & Culture

Temperature – this is probably the most important aspect of culture next to your standard begonia care. Plants from high elevation habitats like Begonia pavonina are adapted to unique conditions which include cooler nights, more volatile humidity and potentially higher UV indexes. The atmosphere “up there” at higher elevation is thinner, less dense and doesn’t trap heat like it does at lower elevations. For this reason, Begonia pavonina (a high-elevation species) is considered a “cool grower”, but that’s a “tropical cool”, not “Canadian cool” and means it needs evening temps to go down from daytime temps by about 8C (but no lower than about 12-15C). Daytime temps should be “tropical” and should sit around 20-27C. According to Araflora, “A drop in night temperature also has a beneficial influence.” [source]

Plants adapted to higher-elevation climates like this have a different metabolism than “lowland plants” and rely on those cooler nights to throttle their consumption of sugar during the night. If you live in a continuously hot climate, this species may be challenging for you to grow.

Humidity – most articles say, “no lower than 50%”; a LOT say that it must be very high. My humidity sucks, around 35-50%, but my  plant grows fine and I grow it like a houseplant. I am careful to water as the media dries and never let the roots go bone dry.

Begonia Potting Media – You’ll want to use a potting mix that holds moisture, but allows for good airflow to the roots and then you want to avoid letting the potting mix go bone dry (especially when acclimating new plants). I used peatmoss and large-chunk perlite at a 1:1 ratio, but what you use isn’t as important as how it works with your climate and watering method. You want the roots moist, but well oxygenated—as with all things horticulture and plant care—how you make that happen is very free form. When repotting, I always use a small amount of organic fertilizer which I’ll cover down below—this plant comes from limestone regions, so if your water is very soft or low in minerals, you may also want to add a small amount of oyster shells (can get this at a pet store) to the potting mix (1/4 tsp per pot) or dose with CalMag monthly when you feed.

Watering B. pavonina – above I mentioned you want to keep the roots moist and because this species has a shallow root system, you may want to “top water” and liberally drench the surface of the potting mix until water runs out the bottom. Active irrigation like this will oxygenate the soil and helps prevent root die-back so long as your potting mix is airy and drains well.

I have a watering method I like – where I use a water bottle with melted holes in the lid. I reuse that water bottle for months, filling the bottle with a jug of water over and over and using that to water the plants – here’s a video of how I water so you can see for yourself. I’ll spray the surface of the media and the leaves of the plant to really drench it (like it’s raining).

pH – As with most tropical plants, you’ll likely want your water slightly acidic (5.8-6.5pH) which will improve nutrient availability to the plant. I use my tap water which is naturally alkaline (7.9pH, 250ppm CaCO3) and I’ll alternate weeks with ever second watering being acidified to a pH of ~6 using citric acid. On the weeks opposite of that, I just use my un-adjusted alkaline tap water.

Light – I’m going to be honest with you, I find this an annoying topic because it requires a significant explanation for precision and I think it’s a topic a lot of new growers struggle with—I know I certainly did. I could tell you, “low light”, but I think I’d be doing you a disservice AND it leaves so much to interpretation of what that actually means…AND it has a high chance for error. The most direct explanation I can offer is, “I give my begonia about 10-20% filtered direct sun”; which depending on how you prefer to measure light is roughly 1,000–2,000 footcandles or 10,764–21,528 lux or 8.6–17.3PAR. You can use full sun and filter out 80% of it, or you can build up to that using grow lights…but you can see what I mean when I say, “Light is complicated!”

If you want to know more about light, I’m not going to leave you high and dry. Read this article about Alocasia Dragon Scale and skip to the section on light because it clarifies some of those gritty details and should be helpful. Then, if you are still looking for more details about light, jump over to this article: Tips for Buying, Measuring & Evaluating LED Grow Lights, which has some good videos and information about light for plants. After that come back to this article and reread the section on light.

Fertilizer – Another fun and complicated topic! You can feed with a standard synthetic fertilizer with NPK values of around 20-20-20 at a reduced strength (generally around 1/4 tsp per gallon of water). BUT…my opinion is that for the best growth you should offer a buffet of plant food, not just “fast food”.

Organic fertilizer offers a better range of plant nutrients. I add a sprinkle of bloodmeal, rockdust, kelp and greensand into the potting mix (1/8 tsp total for all of this – so just a tiny pinch of each) when I repot, and then 2x more per year, sprinkled on top. Organic fertilizers breakdown in the soil over time, so they’re NOT water soluble – this means you add them directly to the potting media, not when you water.

I still fertilize with synthetic nutrients every second week – I use MSU Orchid Fertilizer at 1/4 strength

 

More Begonia pavonia Care Resources & Articles

Photo Timeline of my Begonia pavonina

Night photo with flash – Nov 12, 2020
Updated photo – it’s huge considering I’ve only had it for 2 months – November 11, 2020

Size increase and showing off that blue leaf – October, 2020
For the first 3 weeks, I kept an inverted pot over top to keep the humidity up. It grew so fast, I had to take the “mini-terrarium” off and it grew just as fine without. – End of September, 2020

The day my Unicorn plant arrived – September 11, 2020

 

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Hybrid or Species? Two forms of Begonia pavonina

The reasons I’m suspicious that my plant is a hybrid: it has some morphological differences in the leaf shape, color, texture, and size; and it’s almost too easy to care for, which doesn’t align with “common perspectives” about Begonia pavonina. I grow my plant in my dry, central-Canadian apartment (under 50% humidity), in moderate light (around 10-20% filtered sun depending on the time of day) in front of an screened East-facing window, and it’s a weed. In the first 2 months, it went from a small leaf cutting to a large plant with multiple growth points. See the photo for yourself…

Before/After photo of my Begonia pavonina – 2 months growth
Photo of in situ Begonia pavonina for comparison
Image by Ong Poh Teck
Side-by-Side Photo Comparison of the two Begonia pavonina “forms”
The easier “blue form” (like mine) on the left and the true species on the right

 

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If it is a hybrid, I don’t mind—I love the plant, how it looks and that it’s a fast/easy grower—but if you have the “true form”, this care sheet may not be for you. Also…I’m not a taxonomist or Begonia expert—I’m just a guy who grows and breeds orchids and therefore I notice small details in plant traits. Looking at the photos above, you might notice that the leaves on my plant have serrated edges and a “pillowy” texture. The species pavonina in the photo below it doesn’t have this quality. That difference could possibly related to culture (low humidity and higher light) but even the two plants side by side have clearly different leaves. So…I’m still sharing this information in the hopes that it’s helpful others, maybe you have the blue form like I do, but understand that if my plant is a hybrid, then this care sheet may not be as relevant to the true species. I will try to track down the other version and grow that.