Originating from Mexico and arriving at Kew in the mid nineteenth century, begonias, with their waxy, brilliantly colored flowers, are typically not hardy in England and so were often grown in greenhouses; their tolerance of low light levels also made them useful as houseplants. Perhaps because they were such a recent import, they are not included in Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers, but other sources identify them with “dark thoughts” (perhaps because of their shady habitat). Their motto is said to be “Beware I am fanciful”; one scholar suggesting the fancifulness is “an allusion to the showy, feathery, hybrid forms” (Ward 58). A website on Flower Meaning adds that begonias are “useful as a food item since you can toss the leaves and flowers in a salad for a burst of color.” www.flowermeaning.com/begonia-flower/; accessed 1/11/18
There are no mentions of begonias in Woolf’s life-writing, though in her biography of Leonard Woolf, Victoria Glendinning notes his fondness for scarlet and yellow begonias, grown in his new greenhouse in 1938 (333). The only time begonias appear in Woolf’s fiction is many years earlier, in Jacob’s Room (1922), where they show up at the Durrant’s house in Cornwall, first as part of a silly wager at dinner about eating begonias with fish (58) and then a few pages later as part of the set dressing in the greenhouse: “geraniums and begonias stood in pots along planks; tomatoes climbed the walls” (JR 62). Although both of these references were added after the holograph, I cannot make much of their significance. Clearly Woolf knew that begonias were edible, but it feels like a bit much to take these two casual cameos as evidence that Jacob (or Clara) needs to be warned about the other’s fancifulness.