The Begonia in California, Part 1

By: Judith Taylor

Judith M Taylor, a retired Oxford-trained neurologist, now practices history without a license in San Francisco. She has published several…

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Michel Bégon, governor of the French Antilles, for whom the genus Begonia was named by Charles Plumier. Portrait etched by P Sellier in Duplessis, Un curieux du XVIIe siécle

Michel Bégon, governor of the French Antilles, for whom the genus Begonia was named by Charles Plumier. Portrait etched by P Sellier in Duplessis, Un curieux du XVIIe siécle

The begonia found a most congenial home in California, where its cultivation reached a pinnacle. The state’s fertile soils and equable climate were ideal for many species of this tropical and subtropical genus. How this came about is a curious and circuitous story, but it mirrors that of quite a few other plants that have had their heyday in California.

The genus Begonia is found in the warmer climates of the New and Old worlds, from which it was transported to Europe and then exported west again, several centuries later, to California. The US Department of Agriculture’s Germplasm Resources Information Network lists a total of 1,548 species at present. The genus is divided into scientific botanical groups as well as horticultural ones. The American Begonia Society defines eight horticultural groups: cane-like, shrub, rhizomatous, semperflorens, tuberous, Rex (a form of rhizomatous), trailing-scandent, and thick stemmed. Different classifications are used in other parts of the world.

With their soggy climate, sun-deprived English gardeners dote on the tuberous group. It offers them the greatest challenge and has the greatest appeal. In the United States, a much wider range is grown. The smaller annual kinds—known collectively as Begonia xSemperflorens-Cultorum hybrids—are used everywhere for bedding and are universally popular. Several kinds treated as annuals in temperate climates are perennial in their countries of origin. Most of them have shiny leaves with a waxy appearance, giving rise to their most familiar name, wax begonias. Wax begonias have become something of a cliché, but newer introductions, with larger or brighter flowers, are starting to revive interest in them.

Begonias first reached Europe from Central and South America and the Caribbean islands. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish physician and botanist Francisco Hernandez described and illustrated a native Mexican plant that was clearly a begonia. After ordering Hernandez to go to the New World in 1571, King Philip II left him to suffer in the tropical heat for eight years, delaying the publication of Hernandez’s huge botanical work. It was not published until 1625, long after his death. Charles Plumier found six species of Begonia, naming the genus for the governor of the French Antilles, Michel Bégon. His discoveries were first listed in a book published in 1700 by one of his colleagues. Meanwhile, the Chinese had been cultivating their own species of begonia (B. grandis), since about 1400. By 1641, begonias were also appearing in Japan.1

Modern hybrids, however, mainly descend from three species: Begonia veitchii, B. schmidtiana, and B. socotrana, all collected in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Early Work in Europe

The efficient collector Richard Pearce worked for the Veitch nursery (in Chelsea, England) and discovered five seminal species of Begonia in Bolivia, Peru, and Chile: B. boliviensis, B. veitchii, B. davisii, B. rosiflora (then known as B. rosaeflora), and B. pearcei at the end of the 1850s.2The last species supplies the rare yellow pigment, which has proven indispensable for hybridizing. James Veitch Jr, a brilliant but irascible man, did not release these new plants right away but sequestered them in his Devonshire greenhouses and allowed the hybridist John Seden to work on them for a few years. When the hybrids were introduced, they were dazzling.

Begonia schmidtiana was discovered in 1878 in Brazil by Scharff and Haage of the German firm Haage and Schmidt, in the town of Erfurt. For many years, begonias were specialties of this and another leading Erfurt nursery, Ernst Benary Samenzucht, which developed the first Semperflorens hybrids that could be reproduced faithfully from seed—an important step toward making begonias more common in the nursery industry.

B. socotrana was discovered on Socotra, an island in the Indian Ocean about 150 miles off the coast of Somalia. The distinguished Scottish botanist Isaac Bailey Balfour found it in 1880. One of its characteristics was the ability to flower in the winter months, giving it immense importance in the hybridizing world.

Initially, begonias were a rich man’s indulgence. During their heyday from the 1870s to the 1920s, begonias were treated rather like orchids; they needed heat and specialized care. Once they could be reliably grown from seed and became less finicky in their needs, the general public was able to enjoy them, too. During this first phase of begonia collecting and breeding, the principal work was done in Europe, mainly in Belgium, England, France, and Germany. The earliest species had small, single flowers in tones of pink and white. The possibilities seemed limited, but the hybridizing process began quite early; hybrids of Begonia manicata and B. dipetala began appearing in 1840 or 1841.3

Victor Lemoine, and the firm of Crousse in Nancy, France, and Louis van Houtte in Ghent, Belgium, began to expand the choices. A double flower was first seen in England in 1872 and in Lyons in 1873. Lemoine introduced a double begonia in 1876. Classification soon began to stagger under the weight of new flower forms. Using the nomenclature suggested by Andreas Voss, Lemoine called his flowers B. xtuberhybrida. This portmanteau term was adopted by experts such as Charles Chevalier, author of Les Begonias in 1938.4 Within that grouping, many horticultural subgroups were developed, with informal names such as “rose form,” “camellia form,” and “picotee.”

UC Berkeley’s Harry Butterfield credited Lemoine with four seminal introductions in the bedding class and at least three other probable ones, between about 1880 and 1900.5 The flower series named Gloire de Lorraine or Gloire de Nancy were a Lemoine hallmark, even if his own name did not appear. Another handful are simply listed as being “from France,” and are either Lemoine or Crousse varieties. Lemoine’s sons Emile or Henri continued his work in the later years.

Taylor.03.Reinelt

Necessity Spurs Initiative

Butterfield attributed the first begonias in California to nurserymen William Walker of San Francisco (1858) and James Hutchison of Oakland (1874). He credited Walker with stocking Begonia manicata and Hutchison with B. semperflorens (now known as B. cucullata).6

A review of early nursery catalogs reveals that the commercial choice of begonias in the US was extremely limited until after the First World War. Large seed companies, such as Burpee, offered a few species, an occasional hybrid, and little else. In the 1890s, Rex begonias were listed as “conservatory and parlor decorative” plants. People were fearful of planting them outdoors because they were considered to be so tender.

There had been some American hybridizing of begonias in the early twentieth century, but most nurseries at that time were still importing European selections. In 1912, for instance, the San Francisco firm of CC Morse listed a new shipment of begonias from a “distinguished English breeder.” One of the earliest notable California begonia breeders in that period was Theodosia Burr Shepherd, also known for her work with sweet peas (see Pacific Horticulture October 2007).

The First World War was a turning point in the plant business, as in so many other things. Shipping was restricted to essentials, and there was a great shortage of food. No seeds or plants could go to the United States from Europe. That led to a shift in the American nursery scene and stimulated local initiative. American nurseries looked to their neighboring countries for new plants of all kinds, among them begonias, which began to arrive directly from relatively nearby sources in Central and South America. Unfortunately, little is recorded about the arrival of particular species in California.

With the loss of European sources during the war, and the growing recognition that California’s climate was favorable for cultivating begonias, a profound change came to the world of begonias, and the Vetterle Brothers in Capitola, California, among others, played an important role in this transformation.

Taylor.04.R-CathedralDeveloping Californian Begonias: Vetterle and Reinelt

J Lowell and Everett Vetterle inherited a thriving nursery in Capitola from their father John. A lawyer of Swiss descent, John had moved from Michigan to California in 1910 to start a bulb business. Callas (Zantedeschia) were among their most important crops, but they also offered Gloxinia, montbretia (Crocosmia), Anemone, and Ranunculus.

The brothers grew begonias fairly successfully in the 1920s, in spite of the seed being almost microscopic and difficult to handle. Choices among begonias remained fairly narrow until the brothers’ inspired decision to take on Frank Reinelt as their breeder and hybridizer in 1934.

The joint firm became a leader in the great expansion of the begonia palette, for both amateur growers and fanatical collectors alike. The public flocked to the nursery because of the extraordinary beauty of the premises. Their “Cathedral of Begonias” was breathtaking.

Everett died in an accident in 1943. His wife and two daughters joined Lowell and his wife, and Reinelt, to continue the firm. This partnership lasted until 1969, by which time Reinelt’s arthritis had begun to seriously interfere with his ability to work, and he moved to Arizona, hoping that the warmer climate would relieve some of his pain and stiffness. Vetterle and Reinelt reverted to Vetterle Brothers.

The business was sold in 1973 to Shasta Nursery, a large strawberry growing concern. Shasta moved the begonia grounds to Watsonville, but, without Reinelt—its mainspring—and his begonias, Vetterle and Reinelt ceased to operate.

Taylor.05.Antonelli_FIXAntonelli Brothers

John, Patrick, and Peter Antonelli opened their own begonia garden in Santa Cruz. As young men the three brothers had worked for Vetterle and Reinelt, and before that, they had been truck farmers. Like Vetterle and Reinelt, the begonia garden was a destination as well as a business. The Antonellis had a “Chapel of Flowers” hung with myriad baskets of begonias and furnished with picnic tables and benches. The value of such publicity was incalculable. They competed with Vetterle and Reinelt and its “Cathedral of Begonias” more or less benignly; each fall, both nurseries participated in the Capitola Festival of Begonias. Capitola had declared itself the “Begonia Capital of the World,” starting the annual festival in 1954.

Patrick Antonelli died in 2001. Antonelli’s premises burned down in 2005. A year or two later, the business moved to Watsonville. The present owner, David Bobbitt, is a grandson of Peter Antonelli.  

Brown Bulb Ranch

The Brown Bulb Ranch grew tuberous begonias on an industrial scale in Capitola for many years. The firm saw the possibilities in the mass market and grew millions of plants each year, distributing them to chain stores across the country; they were the first nursery to supply begonias to FW Woolworth’s (the American five-and-dime store) and later to Sears. In 1972, the firm planted one million begonia tubers in its Capitola fields and five million in its Marina fields.

The nursery began in 1911, a few years before the First World War. James Brown had done well selling cars and buggies. He decided to move to Capitola and started growing berries on several acres. He bought a herd of dairy cows to obtain weed seed-free manure; the cows gave so much milk that he opened a chain of ice cream stores. Despite these “side” ventures, his principal interest remained horticulture and the growing of bulbous plants such as begonias.

James died in 1932 at the age of forty-nine. His sons, Alan and Worth A Brown expanded the company and concentrated all their efforts on the bulbs. The catalog for 1931 indicates the complexity of their begonia output. James had gone to England the year before to acquire the best varieties he could find. In 1948, Worth wrote Tuberous Begonias: A Complete Guide for Amateur and Specialist, a useful primer on their care.

The Brown grandsons continued the family business. At present, the Browns still grow begonia bulbs but not in Capitola. They have numerous growing grounds in other parts of California and in Baja California, Mexico. Family members manage the firm and develop new hybrids.

Taylor.07.H-Watsonville

Henry A Hyde

Henry Hyde moved to California from Maine in 1898. He established a most successful nursery in Watsonville, right on the main street. Hyde was one of the earliest nurserymen to realize that he would profit from supplying all the necessities for the home gardener—not just seeds and plants. A customer could get a landscape architect to advise on how to lay out a garden, or find all the tools and sundries to implement the design. A stonemason was available, and rockwork could be undertaken. Begonias were important from the start. Hyde eventually sold almost all types of the new tuberous begonia hybrids: giant single, frilled, crested and fimbriata; double; rosebud; marmorata; and pendant. As a sign of his seriousness, Hyde hired a well known Belgian plant breeder, M Dossche, in the early 1930s.

Another line of business was strawberries. It is not by chance that the bulk of California’s strawberries are grown in Watsonville, where the soils and climate are ideally suited to their cultivation. Hyde, Robert Driscoll, and a few others essentially created the industry.

The Hyde nursery prospered until l959, when it was closed down. One of Hyde’s surviving sons is still in the strawberry business—a wholesaler of several varieties specially bred by the University of California to flourish in the Watsonville conditions.

Recent Changes

To gain some perspective on the value of begonias in California, it is helpful to look at the USDA’s floriculture summary published each year. For the United States as a whole, ornamental horticulture contributed about four billion dollars to the Gross Domestic Product in 2007. California begonias comprise about six million dollars of that aggregate. However, many California growers have shifted portions of their activity to Mexico or Central America, attracted by lower production costs there.

Horticulture has been a flexible and plastic industry throughout California’s history, and that has been its strength. As one crop declines, another moves in. The commercial cultivation of begonias has not completely vanished from the state, but many fewer of them are grown in California than in past years.

Excerpted and adapted from the author’s next book, Visions of Loveliness: The Work of Forgotten Flower Breeders, to be released in 2010 by the Krieger Publishers. Part 2 of The Begonia in California appears in the July 2009 issue of Pacific Horticulture.

Bibliography:

Brown, Worth A. 1948 (re-issued 1955). Tuberous Begonias: A Complete Guide for Amateur and Specialist. New York: MC Barrow.

Butterfield, HM. 1960. “Growing Begonias in California.” University of California Agricultural Extension Bulletin 162. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Chevalier, Charles. 1938 (re-issued 1973, translated by Alva G Graham). Les Begonias. Pasadena, California: American Begonia Society.

Haegeman, J. 1979. Tuberous Begonias: Origin and Development. Vaduz, Lichtenstein: J Cramer.

Krauss, Helen K.1947. Begonias for American Homes and Gardens. New York: Macmillan

Shepherd, Sue. 2003. Seeds of Fortune: A Gardening Dynasty. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Tebbitt, Mark C. 2005. Begonias: Cultivation, Identification and Natural History. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

American Begonia Society

The American Begonia Society began as the California Begonia Society in 1932. Afficionados gathered at intervals and distributed an informal newsletter, a mimeographed “Monthly Bulletin” launched in January 1934, with valuable hints about the growth and culture of their favorite flower. By 1938, this simple sheet became The Begonian, still published by the society today.

Only a few growers knew much about begonias. There were problems with its classification, and species that are now commonplace had not yet been discovered. One thing was clear, however: begonias did flourish in California.

Herbert P Dyckman started the organization and the initial monthly meetings were held at his house in Long Beach. Dyckman had worked in various jobs but always had a strong feeling for flowers, and for begonias in particular. During the Depression, he was employed by the Long Beach School District to teach people how to grow their own vegetables. He briefly ran his own begonia nursery but was defeated by an unexpected frost in 1936.

A year or two after the society was formed, there were enough people to set up a branch in Ventura; by 1940, Santa Barbara had its own branch. This was a boon to members who lived at a distance from the headquarters. The members tended to be in Central and Southern California, where the climate was ideally suited to begonia cultivation; there were rather fewer members in Northern California. In 1935, Alfred D Robinson recommended they become a national society. Begonia fanciers in the eastern states rapidly joined the American Begonia Society, and there are now chapters in many states.

For information about the American Begonia Society, visit www.begonias.org.

  1. Tebbitt, Begonias: Cultivation, Identification and Natural History
  2. Shepherd, Seeds of Fortune: A Gardening Dynasty
  3. Krauss, Begonias for American Homes and Gardens
  4. Butterfield, “Growing Begonias in California,” UC Agricultural Extension Bulletin 162
  5. Ibid
  6. Chevalier