Beefsteak Begonia, Begonia erythrophylla, comes with a lovely romantic history that speaks about its success as a wonderful houseplant. Its crisp, watery leaves are as round as a pancake, born on watery stems ringed with fine hairs and growing from horizontally creeping rhizomes. The copper and bronze leaves of Beefsteak begonia are undercoated with burgundy red and grow from 2 to 7 inches in size, creating a canopy of unusual natural, earthy color. In high light, the leaves are compactly tiered to cover the curving rhizomes, while in low light its stems often stretch to a height of 12", angularly holding the pancakes atop.
No two Beefsteaks grow identically shaped. It is a plant of rare, unusual beauty which prompts conversation. Inspired by its leaves shape, some refer to it as a "pond lily" begonia. Beefsteaks are easy to grow and maintain, with little time demands. They respond optimally to very bright shade indoors but tolerate many different light situations, from brilliantly sunny to northern window shade. If allowed a few hours of direct sunlight in the winter, by mid to late winter they put on a spectacular fairyland dress show of dramatic, miniature, very pale pink, pendant blooms held high above the canopy on tall spiky stems. Valentine's Day always seems to signal Beefsteaks to take center stage and celebrate the new spring-to-come with their festive, airy pageantry.
Begonias are tropical and sub-tropical, making household temperatures of 55-75 degrees ideal. Most begonias prefer high humidity, but average household humidity is fine for the very tolerant beefsteaks. Misting the plant or the soil in between waterings is good, but not necessary. Potting soil or standard coarse, loose soil-less potting mixes should be rich in peat moss or organic material with vermiculite, perlite, or sand for good drainage. Water evenly from the top with tepid, room temperate water; keep evenly moist, allowing the soil to dry only slightly during periods of low light or dormancy and always keep well drained. Dormancy can occur if they are grown too cold. Their delicate fine roots are subject to rot if kept constantly too wet, and to burning and shriveling if too dry. The plant is usually not prone to insects or disease. Beefsteaks require little fertilizer. Dilute rates (1/4) of the label recommendation of a houseplant fertilizer of even numbers (15-15-15) once or twice a month from March to October will reward growth.
Propagation is primarily by cuttings and rhizome divisions which also serve to prune the plant.
The genus Begonias was discovered and first named in 1670 by Charles Plumier in Santo Domingo after his sponsor Michel Begon, but begonias have been found growing in moderate temperatures all over the world. I don't know from what indigenous country Beefsteak originated or got its common name but it is a meaty begonia, rare, thick and red underneath, and substantial enough to feed a plant lover's hunger for many years. Of all my plants, this dear begonia is the one to curl up with at night with a good book.
This is a begonia that Ashley Wilkes would have given to Melanie before he went off to war in "Gone with the Wind". Its stoic ability to survive and thrive despite all odds is unparalleled and thus it comes with a history of being a plant that has been successfully passed down through generations of families. Today we call it an old fashioned variety of begonia bearing memories of its unusual, shiny "lily pads" on grandmother's windowsill. Or we remember the parlor palm next to the long fronded fern near the window with "that pancake plant".
Heritage and History
(Note: we used to sell beefsteaks on this site, but, sadly, do not do so any more. This is still a wonderful article about the plant.)
All the beefsteaks for sale from Emily's site have such a heritage and history, being the cuttings or divisions of my original plants from two sources.
The first was Aunt Mina. In 1976 my grandmother Downing's sister, my great-Aunt Mina shared a rooted piece of her beefsteak with me. Aunt Mina was born near the turn of the century and having lived through The Great Depression, was thrifty, creative, earthy, and dedicated to everything old fashioned. Jars of plant cuttings lined the sullen windows of her basement on the farm in the foothills of Virginia and interesting plants of all sizes overflowed her porch in summer. Clivias. Begonias. Night-blooming ceres. Aspidistras. African violets. Christmas cactus. Jade plants. Ferns.
Plants and indoor gardening were two of Aunt Mina's greatest passions. Nurturing. That's what she did, besides butter churning, canning and preserving, baking, and sewing--when homemaking was a science of survival more than passion. And she nurtured a sense of humor. With eyes twinkling she could beckon a trick on an unsuspecting innocent visitor in a blink. Smiling sweetly, she would offer butternut squash pie disguised as the favorite "sweet potato pie", or promote duck eggs lining the refrigerator as "Texas eggs" for breakfast". There were strange assortments of pickled everything lining her basement walls, and I never knew if the unrecognizable contents were what she named them.
And so, I thought "beefsteak" was the nickname my teasing, inventive aunt had lent this beautiful plant, giving it character and imparting mysterious flavor as only Aunt Mina could.
However, I knew the gift, no matter what it was called, was a very special one. This begonia was one of Aunt Mina's special hand-grown, hand-selected children that she was entrusting to me. With that magical invitation to adopt, thus began my romance with begonias. And I have realized over the years that it was not just that beefsteak begonia legacy that she passed on to me that day, but the passion—the passion for propagating, protecting and proffering the begonias to the next generation before they are lost forever--- the passion to pass them on.
The second source of our stock Beefsteaks was a cutting broken from a beautiful specimen in a greenhouse in central Virginia in 2003. Beefsteaks seemed to be rare in Virginia. The caregiver had but one plant and everyone who saw it wanted it. The cuttings were given to me as a request to propagate and grow—to fulfill some dreams of begonia appreciateurs. Those new beefsteaks found their way back to that greenhouse in the summer of 2005.
I am at least a third or fourth generation flower grower. My great-grandmother Bette grew legendary iris, a few of which are still around today. In the early 1950's, my grandmother Downing was a commercial peony grower. Each spring her four daughters (and a four year old) helped her cut, pack and ship acres of fresh peonies in bean hampers to the New York Market by train. My grandfather raised horses and farmed hundreds of acres of vegetables for market. Peonies and horse manure are still some of my most favorite fragrances that take me back to stables and stalls, soft flowers by lamplight, and train stations. I am convinced I have family chlorophyll in my veins.
In 1975, my greenhouse journey began, almost by happenstance. I have been growing houseplants commercially on old family farmland for 34 years. And it was just about as long ago, in much the same happenstance way, that I chanced upon another plant lover, Evy, with watering can in hand at a florist shop and a torch in her heart for plants. She never met a plant she didn't love. In honor of that passion, Emily offers these special Beefsteak begonias for sale. With each 4 1/2 " pot of a one-year old Beefsteak plant comes this history and legacy of comfort, love, and passion that the Beefsteak begonia has brought us for many years. Grow it, enjoy it, call it what you will, and pass some of it on---with a twinkle in your eye.
Some comments from Emily's mailbox:
Thank you so much for the wonderful article you have on the internet about the Beefsteak Begonias. My family moved from Virginia to North Carolina in 1950. My brother and I rode with my mother behind the moving van and his "most important" job was to hold Mother's prized Beefsteak that had been given to her years before by a Mrs. Shirley in Altavista Virginia. We thought Mother had made up the name to entertain us. I couldn't believe it when I read about you and your Aunt Mina. It brought back so many memories that I have as a child about my Mother's flowers. Mother is now 90 years old and I cherish my Beefsteak. It is a beautiful plant and is the star attraction in my sun room. Thank you for sharing.
One of our readers writes:
It is over forty years since I acquired a cutting of this begonia. Until my wife visited Singapore, saw a specimen in the South Bay Garden and got its name Erythophylia from their horticulturalist, neither of us has seen it anywhere, nor could we find it in catalogues, nor did specialist growers in the UK recognise it.
In the absence of any other name, we have called it the Leather Leaf Begonia.
The plants we have are at least fifth generation, a photo of the largest, still immature, is attached. One grew nearly three fee long until the main stem broke off under its own weight.
- Dick Lawrie