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Home > Begonian > Volume 71 (September/October 2004)

Begonian: Helen Spiers
by Donna Zody

Begonian: Helen Spiers. This invitingly vigorous Begonian thrives in an atmosphere of like cultivators, even prefers crowding. Has an upright growth pattern with easy rooting; requires modest feedings but generous hydration. This member has a crown of coppery brown hairs, and blooms in sun kissed blush tones, providing unparalleled beauty and grace, giving everyone something to talk about. 

Meet Helen Spiers who demurs being credited with organizing three Houston area Begonia Branches, preferring to think only that she was an instrument in the process, yet candidly admitting that her philosophy has been to "organize and spread the word about Begonias". The Southwest Region, American Begonia Society, however, chose to trumpet Helen's contributions, with the Marguerite Vernon Award and the Begonia Ambassador Award, both in 1993, for diligent service and for outstanding work in promoting begonias.

So, what makes a person like Begonian Helen Spiers tick? What makes all Begonia lovers tick? Helen is a "people person" first, last and always, and the rest of her story is a refreshing journey ...a love story, if you like, full of obstacles, challenges and triumphs.

Helen was born in Helena, Arkansas, and no, she wasn't named for the town, but rather for the obstetrician's wife Helen. She was one of the Harden girls, growing up with sister Evelyn who would remain Helen's best friend and idol for life. Their home was a typical ante-bellum house complete with Victorian trappings including all of the ferns and begonias her mother could manage to find. Helen was graduated from Ouachita Baptist University (in Arkadelphia, AR) in May 1946 along with her next "best friend" and roommate, Jan.

It seemed only natural that Jan and her fiancé Houston Knight would introduce Helen to Mr. Knight's best friend, Buddy Spiers. This foursome remained fondest friends although miles separated them, the Spiers in Texas and the Knights in California. Jan's death was a low point for Helen, but the passing of her beloved Buddy Spiers just six months short of their 50th anniversary was crushing.

Helen and Buddy enjoyed the pursuit of their dreams while raising their only son, Bill. Helen devoted thirty-seven years to education as Director of Elementary Education, and in the interim developed a small business called "Crocheted Treasures", combining her childhood gift of elaborate needlework designing and her eternal love of Victoriana. Through the years, she kept houseplants as diligently as her mother had, always mindful of the health benefits they imparted as well as their decorative beauty. Buddy knew that his wife was fond of unusual plants and often surprised her with a special plant. One day he whisked her away to a unique "find", a nursery filled with the most beautiful begonias Helen had ever thought imaginable. It was the beginning of a quest to learn more about this magical, versatile culture.

Buddy and Helen were supportive of each other's hobbies, but sometimes got playfully competitive in their separate collections. "I would come home with a new tray of Begonias, then Buddy would go out and buy yet another antique book for his Civil War library. We called a truce and I started propagating my own Begonias", says Helen, recalling how very much she needed human answers to her Begonia questions. "I needed to share growing experiences with people, not just authors in a book", she added. She was unable to find an association, a branch or club in Houston. In 1987, Buddy gifted her with a trip to California to attend an American Begonia Society Convention. There, she was encouraged by many of the attendees to go back to Houston and form a branch of ABS.

The rest is history. One, after another, Helen met Begonians and more Begonians, each as enthusiastic as the last. There was Sidney Anne (Kirksy) Wilkinson who became Helen's mentor and immediately put Helen to work as "Decorating Chairman" for the Southwest Region Annual Get-Together. Helen readily admits that her hand-made crocheted; six inch pot covers were charming centerpieces for the tables, especially when filled with luxuriant begonias. So charming, in fact, that one guest at each table won the plant while another won the lacey pot cover.

garden garden
Oh, what visions you will see when you visit Helen Spiers' yard: Begonias and ferns and exotics galore!

Helen is not a name dropper, but she is quick to credit men as well as women for being true Begonians and help-mates, always..."John Ingles, Tom Keepin, George Macias, Houston Knight, Buddy ....". With rigorous effort and devotion to organizing, the Astro Branch (1989) took on a new inception, and then the Satellite Branch (1992) was formed, followed by the San Jacinto Branch (1995). Helen's calendar has been full and her life enriched by her work with Begonians, usually as a presiding officer, program chair and head cheerleader for all members locally, in the Southwest, and nationally.

In 1998, wishing to honor Helen Spiers for her dedication to the growth of members in ABS, the San Jacinto Branch, ABS, established an on-going gift bearing her name, The Helen Spiers Organizational Gift, a one-hundred dollar check to each newly chartered branch for their start-up expenses. To date, only three new branches have been chartered. When asked if she was concerned about the slow growth of ABS, Helen responded that "the current administration has a wonderful, renewed focus and a commitment to return to grass-roots issues, including membership."

A final glimpse of Helen would be this little vignette. She is standing at the checkout counter of her favorite nursery, holding a tray of assorted plants she has selected. She reaches out for one more little beauty and softly remarks to herself, "I just have to have to get this one, too. Buddy would want me to have it."

Two questions every Begonia grower would like to ask an esteemed Begonian, like Helen: One: "What is your favorite Begonia?" Her answer: "The one I'm holding in my hands right now." Two: "If you could give one tip on growing begonias, what would it be?" Helen's reply was prompt and direct: "Know their needs and provide for them." That sounds like the code of ethics which has guided Helen Spiers's life, whether it's dealing with people, or plants.

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