> Volume 66 (September/October
The French Begonia Society
by Wallace W. Wagner
Since my son and daughter-in-law speak and write
French fluently, I decided to write to members of the French Begonia
Society (AFABEGO) and solicit information about what begonias they grow
and how they grow them. This article contains excerpts from those
Dominque Penningeat has been a member of AFABEGO from
its creation and has been the editor of their newsletter, The Begofil,
for the past two years. He has been an ABS member since1992.
Begonia fans in France would love to be able to get
plants from the U.S., but in France it is difficult to receive plants from
other countries since customs keep the plants for two or three weeks in
their office. By the time the recipient gets the plants they are all
Fortunately, they have in France an important
collection of begonias in the Conservatoire du Begonia of Rochefort.
Patrick Rose, its conservator, receives seeds from all over the world.
Sometimes travelers bring him new begonias that they have found on their
trips. Dominque also gets some begonias from Henri Laporte, who travels to
Madagascar to collect new species of begonias.
Two years ago, in France there was only one nursery
that sold begonias. Now, Dominque and a friend have created a new nursery
that specializes in rare plants and have decided to add begonias to their
offerings. They have a catalog and sell by mail.
Members in the AFABEGO range in age from young to old,
men and women. Several members have more than 300 different plants in
their collections. Some have terrariums that they build themselves. Henri
Laporte has a hexagonal greenhouse that he built himself He heats it with
an electric cable in the soil in the winter.
Except in a small part of France, near Italy, they
have to heat their begonias in the winter. Heating systems vary widely,
depending if the greenhouse is attached to the house. In the north and
central parts of France temperatures can be under -20 degrees Celsius in
the winter and it is necessary to heat plants all the time during the five
cold months. For those who live in the South of France they heat their
begonias only during the night from about November 15th to March 15th.
During a few days it is necessary to heat all day and night. From May to
the end of October, Dominique puts his begonias outside under the shadow
of his bamboo.
Below is information on begonias in
France by Patrick Rose, curator of the Conservatory of Begonia Rochefort,
France, and translated from the French by Samuelle Wagner,
daughter--in-law of Wally Wagner
Begonias in France date back to the 17th century. At
that time France had almost no marine fleet. King Louis XIV wanted to make
Rochefort the most beautiful arsenal of the times. Micheal Begon was put
in charge of the creation of the city and the harbor. He wrote to
collectors and scientists of the entire world, especially the French
colonies of the West Indies and the French islands of the Americas where
he served in 1682.
Begon sent 2 scientists, Father Plumier and Dr.
Surian, to study the West India Flora. In 1689, Father Plumier described a
little plant with succulent leaves and round flowers that he named
"Begonia rosea flore, folio orbiculate" in honor of his renowned
protector, Michel Begon.
For the next 3 centuries, Rochefort was in the lead of
great marine expeditions, satisfying the desire for exotic plants from the
corners of the world. Rochefort became a genuine platform for
Today, the City of Rochefort and the Conservatory of
Begonia carry on the work of Michel Begon, seeking to increase its large
collection of begonias.
For many years France lost interest in the species
begonia, except for Vincent Millerioux, who continued to collect begonias
during the 'dry period' of interest in begonias. The Conservatory of
Begonia was created in 1988 after the city of Rochefort bought the
collection of Millerioux when he retired.
The Conservatory that houses the collection is over
1000 square meters in size. It is not a general collection of begonias but
rather safeguards and studies the less known and forgotten begonias:
African miniatures, South American giants, small yellow-flowered begonias
from Gabon, thick-leafed begonias from Mexico, and genuine jewels from the
Indo-Malaysian peninsula. The Conservatory houses the largest begonia
collection in Europe. They are constantly searching for new species,
particularly, to add to their collection.
Famous horticulturists and botanists from around the
world come to Rochefort to the Conservatory to study and discover
begonias. Rochefort begonias are sold in "Tontines", wicker baskets
patterned after 18th century prints.
excerpts from a booklet from the Conservatoire du Begonia, 1, Rue Charles
Plumier 17 300 Rochefort, written by Patrick Rose, Curator It is condensed
and edited by Wally Wagner.
Conservatoire Du Begonia
Chapter One - The Collection
Rochefort, France's Begonia collection of more than
1300 begonias includes 400 species and 900 hybrids. It was designated as a
National Collection by the C.C.V.S. (Specialized Vegetable Collections
Conservatory). The begonias are kept, cultivated, propagated, and tested
in a 1000 sq. meter greenhouse-conservatory established in November 1988
in the Municipal Horticulture area.
The begonia collection was purchased in April 1986
from a long-time collector, Vincent Millerioux, horticulturist in Presles,
a suburb of Paris, Mr. Millerioux became interested in begonias at the
beginning of the 1960's. Initially, he grew Rex Cultorum begonias. He then
discovered the variety of begonias from around the world and began to
import species from collectors. By 1986, when he decided to retire and
sell his begonia collection, he had collected more than 200 species and
Since 1986, donations, purchases, and exchanges have
added more than 1000 new plants to the collection. Many begonias were
imported from the rainforests in Sumatra, China, and Guinea, especially
from the expeditions of Professor Francis Halle in 1988 and 1990, and the
'Le Radeau des Cimes' expedition in 1990 in South American and in 1991 in
Chapter Two - The Charter
The genus Begonia includes around 1550 botanical
begonias (species, subspecies, and forms and varieties of species). The
number of hybrids is around 15,000! That's why begonia is one of the most
important genuses of the vegetable kingdom. Only orchids and some
composites flatter themselves with such diversity. Begonias are also
fascinating because they come in so many forms, mimicking other plants
such as palms, lilies, orchids, and other genus. They are uniquely
begonias because of their flowers and seedpods.
We make a distinction between botanical begonias and
cultivars or hybrids. Botanical begonias grow under their own shape in
their original environments (tropics, rainforests, mountains, open
environments). They come relatively true from seed.
Hybrids are the results of cross-pollinating, two
begonias or are genetically mutations. The earliest known hybrid, B.
'Erythrophylla', was created in 1849 by crossing two species (B.
hydrocotylifolia Hooker with B. manicata Brongniart).
Rochefort's Conservatory includes few traditional
begonias. Instead, it presents the unknown, the forgotten, the newly
discovered begonias. The collection includes African miniatures (about 5
centimeters)', South American giants (about 5 meters high and wide), small
yellow blooms from Gabon, huge hanging clusters of pink blossoms of 19th
century cane-like hybrids, thick foliage from Mexico, and colored jewels
from the Indo-Malayan peninsula. It's a real showcase of the tropical
ecology, even for the most experienced horticulturist and for the most
famous botanists who come to discover and study the diversity of the
genus. The plants grow in total liberty, as they like.
One of the main purposes of the Conservatory is to
grow successfully unknown or forgotten begonias, which have been replaced
by plants that present ease and rapidity of growth.
Since 1987 efforts at the Conservatory have been
concentrated on (1) observation of the collection, (2) testing and (3)
selection of species and hybrids which are most suitable for high
Also studied are (1) nutrition and how to recognize
deficiency symptoms, and (2) the influence of pruning on behavior.
The first necessity is to try to acclimatize the new
plant. Most of the time the botanical species arrive without precise
indications concerning their biotype (environment in which they live inthe
wild). For the hybrids, you have to determine their difficulty of growing
Chapter Three - The Explorers
The Conservatoire Du Begonia collection honors two
men, Michael Begon and Charles Plumier.
Michel Begon was administrator under France's King
Louis XIV. Begon was born in Blois, France in 1638. He was successively
Administrator in Brest, Toulon, Le Havre in the West Indies, Administrator
of the Marseill's Galleys, and finally Administrator of Rochefort from
September 1688 until his death, March 4, 1710.
In 1682 Rochefort consisted of timber framed houses
where workers of the Arsenal lived. During the next 22 years, Begon built
the town in "stones" with perfectly straight streets as it exists today.
Begon's epitaph on his gravestone reads "Hanc nascentem urbem ligeam
invenit, lapideam reliquit" (He found the town in wood and left it in
Beyond his architectural skills, Begon had a curious
mind and thus corresponded with several scientists. In 1688, as requested
by Louis XlVth, he organized an expedition to the West Indies.
Participants included a doctor, Francois Joseph Donat Surian and Charles
Plumier, a Franciscan and Minik monk, a botanist, and an artist. Plumier
discovered six small herbaceous plants of similar structure. He studied
them, discovered they were the same species, and named them "Begonia" in
honor of his benefactor Begon. Plumier drew and described the plants, but
most likely did not bring back any plants, roots, or seeds.
In 1693, after a second expedition, he published a
book on the "American Plants" where he presented 106 new genera. He earned
the title of Royal Botanist. In 1697, he made a third expedition to the
Americas, and died in 1704, on the eve of a fourth expedition.
The first printed descriptions of the six begonias
discovered by Plumier appeared in Toumefort's "Institutiones Rei
Herbariae" published in Paris in 1700.
Chapter Four -Origin of the Begonias
The genus Begonia belongs to a family that covers all
the tropical areas of the globe except Australia.
America is the most represented continent; first
because it is where we can find more than half of the discovered botanical
begonias in the world and secondly because it was explored earlier and
more often than the other continents.
The Conservatoire Du Begonia collections contains a
lot of begonias from Central America and especially Mexico. Generally
those begonias are (a) Low, creeping and weakly erect such as B.
carolineifolia, (b) Thick stems such as B. lindleyana, (c)
Swollen stems such as B. crassicaulis, (d) large green leaves such
as B. conchifolia, (e) small colored leaves such as B.
conchifolia var. rubrimacula, or (f) more or less deeply denticulate
leaves such as those on B. heracleifolia.
Brazil is also well represented with several plants
from the Atlantic Forest on the east coast called "Mata Atlantica", Rio de
Janeiro, Sao Paulo, the Serra dos Orgaos, The Serra do Mar. None, so far,
are from the Amazon region as one might expect.
A few are from the temperate areas of Peru, Bolivia,
Argentina, and Chile where we find the ancestors of our present day
Asia is also represented with the temperate China
species B. grandis, which grows at an altitude of 3400 meters and
can suffer winters of -30 degrees Celsius. B. rex comes from Assam
in the Himalayas. B. malabarica and B. dipetala come from
The Indo-Malayan peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra, Malaya,
and New Guinea have blessed us with many exotic begonias with very
colorful foliage such as B. deliciosa, B. rajah, B. goegoensis, B.
decora, B. breviromosa, and B.