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Friday, September 30, 2011

Begonia II From the Antilles to the Andes-More adventures

Hybrid tuberous begonia by Paul Carlisle

Spectacular hybrids like this beauty would not have been possible without the efforts of the next wave of plant explorers and collectors in the 19th c. Most of the best were British. One of the most intrepid--and he surely  was--  Richard Pearce,  collected for  the  plant merchants Veitch and Co. Pearce took enormous risks, climbing to 10-12 thousand feet in the Bolivian Andes where he found:                          

Begonia boliviensis

"Begonia pearcei, discovered in Bolivia in 1864, is also important in the hybridising of the Begonia × tuberhybrida begonias, the first of which appeared in 1867.[10"] W.

We hope this is adequate consolation to Pearce for dying in Central America of yellow fever, leaving a young widow..

An entirely different kind of begonia is a favorite along the Central Coast. It was developed in Santa Barbara.

" This is  Begonia 'Freddie' - A giant leafed rhizomatous begonia with entire rounded leaves that are glossy green on top and red underneath...Begonia 'Freddie' was hybridized by legendary Begonia hybridizer Rudolph Ziesenhenne (1911-2005) at his Santa Barbara nursery by crossing Begonia manicata aureo-maculata with Begonia barkeri.He named this outstanding Begonia for his son... " (Quote from San Marcos Growers catalogue) 

                                                            Begonia Freddie

Rudy is remembered in a begonia named for him Rudy Tootie hybridized by Mike Flahertyy of Montecito, owner of The Gazebo. Mike has hybridized another interspecies begonia in the dandy Yankee Doodle:

                                                                Yankee Doodle

For a complete historical take on begonias see once more :  www  For an up to date look a present day begonia hybrizers see : with many other images to be found on the American begonia Society site.
To learn how to grow them----well I'd buy them if I were you---but if you're dedicated, find the friendly directioins at :  Brad is another well-known hybrizer, and the site is bulging with information and pictures.

 tuberous begonia

Another of  Rudy's hybrids

Rex Begonia @. JesBell
 There's even a scented begonia--peach colored, smell is faintly citrus-y, looks great in a hanging basket.

Incidental notes about what's thriving in this strange cool summer: Lots of volunteer grape tomatoes sprang up from the compost. Bore heavily, ripenened easily, still bearing. Small is better?

Dahlias are good, especially the ones that live in a raised bed, and don't have to be lifted. On the other hand the water bill is astronomical......

It seems to take about 3 years for a plant to adjust itself completely to a local climate. Noticed it around here and so did Beverly Nichols in England (see Merry Hall by Beverly Nichols publ. by Timber Press. Nichols is the only garden writer who  can challenge P.G. Wodehouse. He's been re-published in a facsimile edition with the original illustrations.) A guilty pleasure.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Begonias- Part One : From the Louvre to the Antilles -

Charles Plumier
It's begonia season in SoCal.

The somewhat unlikely discoverer of this glamor queen of the botanical world was an extraordinary genius, a monk, a Frenchman who found the first rather unassuming begonia on Hispaniola (my gentle readers will remember Columbus found the island in 1492. However by the 17th c. the French held the island--- which was  an enormously valuable source of sugar.)
Market in the Antilles
 Sugar was the tech stock, the highflyer. Plumier found a patron with a sugar plantation on Hispaniola--- the flamboyant and successful courtier Michel Bégon of   the court of Louis IV the Sun King himself. 

 Michel Bégon was a passionate collector of many things, including plants. He went to the West Indies as Intendant of the Isles du Vent (Windward Islands) were he met and fostered Plumier. Bégon introduced Plumier to Louis XIV, who appointed the monk a royal botanist (which meant a "pension" from the king-- effectively a salary that allowed Plumier to continue his plant explorations. )

Michel Bégon by Hyacinth Rigaud
With such a spectacular patron we'd expect the first begonia to look perhaps like this:

Modern Picote Begonia

Nope. It was an unassuming flower, and the original plant seemed to not exist in a drawing anywhere, including the French Begonia Society in Rochfort, France located at 1 Charles Plumier, Rochfort. But surely it looked rather like this ?

Begonia domingensis photo from the French Begonia Society
begonia from Dominica catalogued 19c.

Now, thanks to Botanicus and the U of Missouri we can see a digital reproduction of  Plants of the Americas.Plumier left an incredible cache of drawing (6000) and 31 manuscript pages which the early botanists were able to see and plagarize, rather freely.  See:
The page can't be reproduced but the original begonia is right there in Tab XLV in Plumier's magisterial book in French and Latin.***Plumier discovered the fuchsia, Arum lily, plumeria....and in his 58 years appears to have worked about 24/7. Louis got his money's worth.
Then, the  plot thickens because the next begonia discoveries pass to the English, beginning with Joseph Banks .

 Kew Gardens becomes the place to see the newest begonias.Plumier falls into undeserved obscurity, as the English begin writing up his discoveries, and apparently not giving Plumier much credit. (Hooker?) History belongs to the victors, and in this case the victors appear to have been the English botanists. However, there  were some heroic  English plant explorers in the 19thc. Stay tuned. Part Two is the story of the tuberous begonia.

*** After a 2 week  search to find this drawing--felt like finding the Holy Grail. In the process of reading about Michel Bégon  re-discovered Dumas  historical novels of the period and the court of the Sun King. The Man In the Iron Mask deals rather crisply with the great Louis... Dumas, like Plumier, deserves your attention.