Musings » Begonias: Cultivation, Identification and Natural History
Portland, Oregon Timber Press 2005
The begonia is a flower like the rose or the orchid which engenders immense involvement, loyalty and even passion among its devotees. I am taking the liberty of calling them “The Begoniacs”. Living to be 94 years old did not dim Rudolf Ziesenhenne’s enthusiasm for the begonia just as being 105 years old has not stopped Ralph Moore from continuing to breed miniature roses. On his 95th birthday Ralph Moore laid out his ten year plan in a talk at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Ziesenhenne, who started his begonia nursery in Santa Barbara in 1934, was known as “Mr Begonia”.
Within this unique universe two main streams run in parallel, devotion to the species and devotion to the hybrids. One group concentrates on the huge number of species begonias, with probably many still remaining to be discovered and some of which still have to be named even after being found. Their habitat is shrinking but even in places like the sadly diminished Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil, a significant endemic zone for this plant, new species continue to emerge.
The other stream is that of hybrids, glorious new offspring which still flow from old established species as well as from the newly found ones. These activities are world wide. In California alone one of the most identifiable of the breeders was Frank Reinelt of Vetterle and Reinelt in Capitola. In his hands the tuberous begonia took on a myriad of exquisite forms dazzling such sophisticated people as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Alfred Hitchcock.
Frank Reinelt focused almost exclusively on breeding the tuberous begonia, turning to primula and delphinium for a change of pace. Rudolf Ziesenhenne straddled both worlds. He served as taxonomist for the American Begonia Society for years, describing and naming the new species as they were discovered but he also bred many elegant hybrids. B. ’Freddie’, (B. manicata var. aureomaculata x B . barkeri), named for his eldest son, is perhaps the best known.
Mark Tebbitt, an English botanist who now works at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, decided to focus on 100 of the possible 1550 species of begonia in an effort to do each one of them proper justice. The begonia is his special field of interest.
Tebbitt takes a neat methodical approach to the plants, making the book easy to read. After the general introductory matter he moves into the species. He introduces them one at a time, laying out the basic information such as the official name, the person who discovered the plant, the date, the taxonomic identification and any synonyms. The initial section for each species is a thorough description of the anatomy of the plant, indicating how it may differ from close relatives or where there are disputed issues. Skilful line drawings clarify any particular points he wishes to make.
From there he moves into a discussion of the plant’s habitat, the circumstances in which it came to the United States and whether it has been a progenitor of any hybrids. In other words this is delicious high level gossip and catnip for those of us who want to delve into the parentage of the hybrids and who did the crossing.
Far be it from me to get into the cross fire between specialists on the merits of his taxonomic decisions but Tebbitt is fast becoming a man to whom experts refer and perhaps even defer on occasion. That is good enough for me.