A begonia by any other name

By Danielle Sendou Ringgit


UNLESS YOU ARE A HORTICULTURIST or into gardening, you might not be able to identify a begonia from other plants, let alone differentiate it from other types of begonias.

This is because they come in many shapes and are known to mimick other plants; so you might even mistake a begonia for an orchid or a lily.

“When we try to classify the begonias, not only do we greatly depend on the shape of the leaves, but also the characteristics of the inflorescence,” said researcher Dr Ruth Kiew from Forest Research Institute Malaysia, Kepong Selangor during a talk on begonias at the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC) during SBC Biodiversity Day on May 23rd.


Dr. Ruth Kiew delivering the talk on different types of Begonias species

Dr. Ruth Kiew delivering the talk on different types of begonias.


Although the name sounds very foreign – the begonia is named after French botanist Michel Begon – Borneo is actually a hot spot for begonias, with almost 96 species native to Sarawak successfully named and identified.

According to Wikipedia, the begonia is a genus of perennial plants in the family Begoniaceae containing about 1,400 plant species and are native to moist subtropical and tropical climates.

Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) researcher Julia Sang believes that there are about 200 begonia species in Sarawak where about 100 are yet to be named and identified.


Researcher from Sarawak Forestry Corporation, Julia Sang during the talk at SBC

Researcher from Sarawak Forestry Corporation, Julia Sang during the talk at SBC.


More than 90% of Sarawak’s begonias can only be found in Sarawak, according to Julia.

“Same goes for Sabah, most of their species can only be found in Sabah and you cannot find them here,” she said.

Among the variations we have here include the Begonia piring (named after the saucer-like appearance of its leaves) which has striking red rimmed leaves or maybe Begonia roseopunctata, which has pink spots on the leaves.


Begonia piring

Begonia piring


Beautiful, striking and exotic looking, it is popular for decoration and landscape design. But before you decide on using these plants as a flower arrangement, did you know that begonias are actually a protected species?

All begonias are protected under the Wildlife Protection Ordinance, 1998 and cannot be plucked or taken away from the wild.

Under the law, it is stated that ‘any person who collects, cultivate, cuts, trims, removes, burns, poisons, in any way injures, sells, offers for sale, imports, exports or is in possession of any protected plants or any recognizable parts or derivative thereof, except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a license issued under the Ordinance, shall be guilty of an offence. Penalty, imprisonment for one year and a fine of ten thousand ringgit’.


Begonia roseopunctata

Begonia roseopunctata


Currently less than 50% of the begonia species are contained within the Totally Protected Area (TPA) leaving the rest susceptible to damage or human contact.

An example of TPAs in Sarawak includes Mulu National Park which has 14 identified begonia species.

One of the most protected begonias is the Begonia Hulletti. The plant is so rare, it cannot be found anywhere else except on one particular hill. As such, the location of this particular species is kept secret from public in order to protect it.


Begonia hullettii

Begonia hullettii


‘Riang’ or ‘telinga gajah’ begonias are also protected not because of its beautiful and exotic appearance, but because of its horticultural benefits.

Medicinally, begonias are said to be able to cure cold and digestive disorders and effective disease such as bronchitis, liver disease and skin diseases.

With its exotic appearance and horticultural benefits, there is still much to learn about Sarawak begonias especially since there are still a lot more left undiscovered.

To find out what other types of protected plants are there in Sarawak, check out the Sarawak Forestry at: http://www.sarawakforestry.com/htm/snp-bc-pp.html.

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