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Home > Begonian > Volume 66 (September/October 1999)

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 letters.

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 mush.

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 ethnobotony.

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.

Following are 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 hybrid begonias.

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 Cameroon.

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 productivity.

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 conditions.

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 stones).

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 tuberous begonias.

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 Bombay, India.

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. serratipetala.

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