Monday, July 30, 2012

Scented Begonias Revisited

This week we have a guest post. 

The views expressed by this guest writer do not reflect the views of the owners of this blog, it’s management or employees, but are strictly the opinions of the author.
(Who, by the way is my wife and mystery writer Laura Crum.)


Scented Begonias Revisited

            By Laura Crum

            I have to start this guest post on my husband’s begonia blog by admitting that I am no begonia expert. Yes, my maiden name was Brown and my family has been growing tuberous begonias for four generations. My first paying job was weeding flats of baby begonias in the greenhouse. But I never officially worked in the family business. I did marry the begonia breeder, however. So I have a certain degree of familiarity with tuberous begonias. Still, my greatest knowledge of them comes from my life as a gardener, and growing begonias at my home.

            I have another confession to make. Begonias are not my favorite plant. No, my heart goes to roses. Not the stiff, upright hybrid teas of florists shops and formal rose gardens. No. I love roses like this.

            And this.

            And this.

            Sorry begonia aficionados, but can your begonias do this?

            These roses, ramblers and climbers all, are not just beautiful and vigorous (I love vigor in a plant), but they are richly scented, such that when you walk up to the lovely display in the above photos, the scent hits you like a wave. This is what a plant ought to be.

I was fond of begonias, but not overfond, despite my long history with them. Just as I don’t care for overly hybridized looking roses, I did not care too much for the huge, heavy begonia blossoms, nodding uncertainly on the weak plants, needing staking and always looking quite unnatural. I also counted it as a fault that such a voluptuous looking flower had no scent. Imagine my delight when my new boyfriend introduced me to the scented begonias he had bred and was raising. I fell instantly in love—with both the plants and the man. Since then I have grown scented begonias on my porch every year, and can say for a fact that they are one of my favorite plants in the whole garden. (Roses are still number one.)

The reasons I love scented begonias are many, and not just limited to scent. I will be the first to admit that the scented begonias have a faint, and usually elusive scent. It doesn’t often hit you in a wave, like the roses. (Though it does have that effect when you walk through a field of scented begonias.) Once in awhile the half dozen plants on my porch will scent the air on a warm summer afternoon. But almost always, if I bend to smell a blossom, it smells sweet. However, the virtues of scented begonias are more than their fragrance.

Scented begonias remind me of the old-fashioned roses that I grow—the ramblers and climbers. These begonias have a more “species” look to them and a more natural form than the larger-flowered types. The scented begonias are overall quite vigorous, have a mildly cascading habit, and don’t need staking. All things to love in my book.

My son smelling a scented begonia.

Those who prefer the huge flowers of the classic large upright begonias may find the form of the scented begonia flowers disappointing. Here is a photo to show the contrast. (By the way, these begonias are growing on my back porch, and I am no professional grower. The scented begonia shown is the first flower of a plant that has come back year after year with no special care. It is the same plant shown in the photo above (Sunrise) of my son smelling a begonia, so you can see that its flowers do become larger later in the season.)

As you can see, the scented begonia has smaller, more “natural” flowers. Though I can admire the large ruffled flower, I think the smaller flower has more grace. This is exactly how I feel about the difference between the large flowered hybrid tea roses and the smaller flowered (and more vigorous) ramblers and climbers. I vote for grace, vigor and scent every time. But for some gardeners, I guess, size is what matters (did I really say that?).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Breeding Scent in Tuberous Begonias

A Little History

Happiness is a scented begonia

"The Gift of perfume to a flower is a special grace like genius or like beauty, and never becomes common or cheap." John Burroughs

Breeding scent in tuberous begonias, and getting those begonias to market, has been both a real challenge and a real pleasure.

Some of the original species used in the development of the tuberous begonia had scent (B. cinnabarina ,B. baumannii,  B. foliosa var.miniata,  B.fimbristapula,  B.capensis and B. fimbristapula) . 

There have always been a very few tuberous begonias that showed a faint scent among the general population, and there were even a few that made it to the public. 

B. Baumannii is the most fragrant species and after being discovered in 1891 was crossed on tuberous hybrids immediatly.  B. "Tiges de fer odorants" was brought out in 1892 by the the breeder Limone.  Various scented begonias followed by the same breeder using this species and tuberous hybrids.

 Our company marketed a scented begonia in 1939 called “Fragrance” that was a cross selected from among 50,000 seedlings obtained by crossing B. baumannii and tuberous hybrids.

Leslie Woodriff, the famous breeder known for originating the “Star Gazer” lily, made many crosses in an effort to produce fragrant tuberous begonias in the 40s and 50s, with some success.  He crossed B. Baumannii with regular hanging basket begonias and something called “species #1041 from the University of California”.  Mr. Woodriff produced a single called “Orange Sweety”.  He also produced scented begonias he named “Patty’s Sweet” and “Yellow Sweety”.   "Yellow Sweety" has had a long life among begonia growers.

Zak and #77KL (Scentiment Sunrise)

Rather than going back to a species begonia to obtain scent we have worked within Begonia x Tuberhybridia. That is why the flowers of our scented begonias are still the fully double flowers that we have come to expect.  There was a mistaken impression among the early breeders that it was the pollen that caused the scent.

About 1986 our company was contacted by Howard Siebold who, for 50 years, bred tuberous begonias, for scent, as a hobby.  Since we had a similar interest, I  began working with Mr. Siebold and exchanged plant material with him.  Golden State Bulb Growers bought the patents on two of Mr. Siebold’s tuberous begonias, Golden Anniversary and Sweet Dian.   Mr. Siebold just wanted to see scent returned to the magnificent flowers of tuberous begonias.  He had been working with crosses made from B. Yellow Sweetie. 

I think Mr. Seibold really wanted the names of his begonias to enter the market place.  They meant something to him.  He was very disappointed to find that a salesman will change any name to another if he thinks it will sell better.  Mr. Seibold’s Golden Anniversary was sold by Jackson and Perkins as “Nectarine Rose”.

While Mr. Siebold was an enthusiastic hobbyist, he did not have the facilities that we, at Golden State Bulb Growers, have for plant breeding.  He only had a small outdoor growing area to evaluate his crosses.  We have agricultural fields.

Mr. Siebold would send me his most promising crosses which I would plant out for him along with our breeding material in the fields in Marina.  He would come down from Fort Bragg once or twice a year and go through the crosses.  The scent in those early crosses was so rare that we would spend hours on our hands and knees smelling for the slightest scent.  Any that he wanted would be staked with a flag of a certain color and I would send them up to him after harvest.  Any he didn’t want were mine! 

We worked together for some years, and I can say for my part, that I enjoyed our relationship.  Unfortunately, Mr. Siebold passed away many years ago. 
When he died he gave many of this begonia tubers to me, including some B. Yellow Sweety and B. Love Song, and the rest went to the Strybing Arboretum. 

He did have one annoying habit though.  He would send seed from one of his scented crosses to anyone who asked! 

Every time another begonia breeder comes up with a scented begonia, I remember those little seed packets going all over the world.

And doesn’t it just frost me every time some begonia salesman comes up with “the first scented tuberous begonia in the world”  The patents for Golden Anniversary and Sweet Dian were in the late 1980s, and “Fragrance” was found way back in 1939. And then there were Leslie Woodriff’s fragrant begonias and don't forget Lemoine's crosses in 1891.

Breeding for scent and finding the right plant within a field of flowers, is only half the battle.  Because the fragrance is so elusive, it is necessary to clone the plants.  Tissue culture of begonias, while relatively straight forward, is still tricky.  Things can go wrong at the last moment, just before planting out to the greenhouse. 

In the past, we have worked with several commercial  tissue culture labs with only limited success.  For example, we have ordered 30,000 clones only to be delivered 2,000 of which half would fail when removed from the tissue culture vessel!  This just drove our sales guys crazy.  A lot of our sales were through garden catalogs (remember garden catalogs?) and if the customer had printed his catalog, (at great expense) he would not be happy when we failed to supply, or supplied 300 when he ordered 5,000.  We have always been a wholesale operation, and having less than a thousand of anything sometimes slips off the radar. 

We have our own lab now but still have problems.  Some years we get lots of one sort, the next year lots of different sort the third year very little of anything. 

Some years we have one or two thousand, some years a couple of hundred, it’s frustrating.

I saw in a White Flower catalog once a Blackmore and Langdon scented begonia for $140 per tuber!

When something is rare, it is more valuable.

The fragrant begonia is an item that fits the retail / internet model of marketing better than the catalog/ wholesale model. On the internet we can sell what we have and that’s that. No upset middleman.

Golden State Bulb Growers hold 8 patents on scented begonias, two with Mr. Seibold as inventor and 6 with my name on them. Golden State Bulb Growers has trademarked the term Scentiment® for them.   The 4 newest patents are much improved over the 4 original (including Mr. Seibold’s 2 original).  There are fifteen more candidates for patenting being evaluated.

Scent is a funny thing.  Give different people a scented flower and they all smell something different. “Smells like honey” , “Smells like Fruitloops cereal”, “Smells like apricots” “Smells like Lemon Pledge!” all from the same plant!

The other thing with scent is that your nose soon looses the ability to discriminate the subtle differences in fragrance.  I have learned a trick from the perfume industry.  It is to take a few coffee beans and put them in a baby food jar and whenever my nose starts to burn out, I’d give the jar a shake and open it up, take a whiff, wipe the slate clean and start again.

The scent in begonias is not overwhelming.  It is not like jasmine, gardenia, or narcissus.  It is subtle.  The scent is produced by a volatile oil and it is most noticeable as the day warms up, at the end of a long hot day there is not much scent left.   In the greenhouse it is very noticeable, getting out of the truck among a field of them is quite heady.

One time Justin Brown and I were going through the scented begonias in the greenhouse, trying to decide if they were worth keeping or not.  We were going down the benches, plant to plant, smelling the flowers, passing the nice ones back and forth. “Um, this one’s nice, try it”.  At the time a greenhouse worker, a young man, was going along and watering dry pots.  When he got to us he remarked “Tough job, eh?”  Well, yes it might just look like the ideal job.  Smelling the flowers.

I don’t think they’ve ever made us a dime.

#77KK Called "Scentiment Bulsh Pink"

#77KL Called "Scentiment Sunrise"

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Ideal Container Plant

Style, Fashion and Convenience.
by Andy Snow

Our company, Golden State Bulb Growers, has always grown begonias and callas.  Many years ago begonias were our main crop, we grew a few callas.  Now the situation is the opposite, in terms of acreage we grow ten times as many callas as begonias.  Callas are our cash cow.
Why?  Perhaps callas are the ideal container plant. 

Calla Pink Melody

Lets look at the calla and the begonia.

Callas are sleek and modern, they are like a runway fashion model. 
Begonias are old world, romantic and voluptuous, they are more like Marilyn Monroe.
Is that why callas are so popular? Maybe.

I think the real reason callas are so popular is that they bloom on a schedule and they can withstand shipping.  The vast majority of our calla sales are to professional growers who take the pot to market with bloom. 

I have noticed that there has been a noticeable shift away from planning to just doing.  I know that my mother and grandmother, for example, canned the produce of summer for enjoyment in the winter.  Even though I grow vegetables for our table, I don’t preserve anything beyond freezing pesto and plum chutney.

I think this not-planning has gone way overboard of late.  I hear that it is becoming uncommon for people to make plans for, say, the weekend.  They’ll just text “hey, were going to the beach…see you there?” or something, (no doubt using abbreviations and while driving).

We’ve become more the grasshopper, less the ant.

A calla that is grown in Half Moon Bay can be shipped across the country and sold at a corner flower stand in Manhattan. 

You can pick up a beautiful calla on your way to your mother-in-law's house for Sunday dinner, no planning needed.  She’ll love it.

Can’t do that with a begonia, sorry.  What are we giving up for the convenience? A grand one-of-a-kind plant that will definitely wow your mother-in-law.   Hand grown by you. Your mother in law will have it blooming for months, and again the following year.  She’ll think of you each time she sees it, she’ll say nice things about you to her friends.

Begonias do get sold to professional growers, but only a small percentage.  Only a specific kind of grower can grow begonias because they refuse to behave in a shipping box.  So the nurseries of tuberous begonia growers are typically a high-end and smaller operation.  They typically have a growing operation in the back and sell in the front. Hence, no shipping.  They are what we call a grower-retailer instead of grower-shipper.  The big guys are grower-shippers.  If your nursery has nice begonias, you can be sure it's a good nursery.  You should stay out of Cosco anyway, it's killing all that's good in merchandizing.

I have tried to work out how to ship begonias because I knew that it would increase our sales.  I have tried chemicals with only limited success and I bred a line of begonias just for that purpose.  The On Top® begonias which are a bi-color multi-flora type tuberous begonia were bred for this purpose. They're great in other ways too. They have lots of smaller blooms, they don’t require staking. They branch real well and take heat better than others begonias.  They make a good garden item, but it is not usually why people love tuberous begonias, they love those large spectacular flowers.

Tuberous begonia pots require a little fussing to give their months of bloom time; pick off the spent blooms, maybe put in a stake late in the season.  Feed and water.  If you're unlucky and the weather hot, mildew may be a problem. (Write to me, I have a couple recommendations, or see this that I found with a Google search.)

A little fussing will give you a lot of rewards.  A lot of fussing will get you a prize winner.  But if the minimal fussing takes you out to your porch at the end of the day (best with a margarita in hand) to touch and tidy your collection, isn’t that a good thing?

Beauty is not always convenient. 

Below is our front porch with begonias and freesias.

Tuberous begonias live a long time; I have in our breeding stock begonia tubers that are over 25 years old.  You could buy a few each year, keep your favorites and give the others to your friends and relatives and you will soon have a unique collection that reflects your taste; you will, after a couple years, have a “relationship” with them.

So I say, (without any prejudice) that tuberous begonias are the ideal container plant.

Begonia Picotee Sunburst

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Back in the Day

I have a confession to make.  I didn’t start this job because I loved tuberous begonias.  I started this job because I needed the work.

I guess you could say the job started in Northern Australia.  Broke in Asia, I needed work then too, badly.

In order to get into Australia as a tourist, I needed a ticket out of the country.  I bought the cheapest ticket I could before I boarded the plane from Bali to Darwin.  The ticket was to Kupang, Timor.  It took almost all the money I had to buy the two tickets one to Darwin, one to Kupang.  I sat on the plane with less than $20 in my pocket, I was deadly afraid that the customs guys would take one look at my wallet, not let me out of the airport and send me off again, and I would end up broke in Timor (not a good prospect).  
I sat next to an Australian on his way home from a vacation in Bali and I talked to him about my dilemma.  He loaned me the $300 in his wallet.  Just put it in my wallet, walked through customs (they looked at my meager funds and found them adequate) and I gave it back to him on the sidewalk outside the airport, the air heavy in that tropical way.

Darwin had been struck by Cyclone Tracy about three months before and was actively trying to rebuild, I found work the next day.  Taking a job on a tourist visa and overstaying my allotted time, made me an illegal alien.   Australia had an amnesty offer  a year or so after I arrived and I got my visa straightened out.

Construction work was lucrative and easy to find but inherently unsatisfying.  Thinking about what I would like to do, I knew I wanted to be a gardener and grow plants.  By that time I had fallen in love with the tropics and it's flora. 

I got a job working for the Northern Territory Parks Department.  They assigned me to Government House.   It is the residence of the “Administrator”, what we (in the U.S.) would call the “Governor”. The residence was maintained by the Parks Department.  It was such a great job, a wonderful tropical garden overlooking the harbor, but not a public place.  The Administrator never came out of the air conditioning and we gardeners gardened for ourselves.

Below you see a photo of Government House.  I’ve been to the top of those palm trees many times.

Government House, North Australia

I started propagating plants in a unused portion of the garden, first for my use and then for the other parks and got a pretty good raise and a title of “Propagator”.  Oh, that was the life.   The stories I could tell, don’t get me started.

Soon though, I knew I had to come home again, I left by a  wooden sail boat. It took 2 years to get home. I also knew that I would settle in California, I mean… where else?

I didn’t want to grab just any job, I wanted back into horticulture.   One afternoon, I drove to the top of Hecker Pass and looked over the Pajaro Valley.  At that time the valley was full of greenhouses, you could count hundreds.  I thought to myself “I can find work here”.   I went from place to place with no luck, several people recommended I go to Half Moon Bay and get a job at one of the big wholesale places.  Most of those greenhouses I saw from Hecker pass are closed now.

At the time, I was staying in my van, parked in an old friends driveway in Capitola and for amusement (being broke) walked about in the evenings.  One evening I walked by a place called the “Brown Bulb Ranch” which I thought amusing.  I mean were the bulbs brown? Or what?  Just outside the fence was a little shack, covered with little pink roses, Paul’s Himalayan Musk I think.  I have always liked shacks and thought to myself, “ I could live in a place like that”

I applied for work at the “Brown Bulb Ranch” the next day.  It was just a couple days before begonia harvest of 1983 and the ad for help was going to appear in the next day’s paper.  They hired me, and my first job was unloading 100 pound sacks of tulips for minimum wage, $3.35 per hour.

They kept me that harvest season, they kept me though the propagating and planting season, they kept me though the summer.  The next year the old greenhouse manager retired and her right hand helper was not comfortable taking on the job.  They offered the job to me! 

I have to confess, I did not fall in love with tuberous begonias.  I fell in love with my job.  I liked the old greenhouses.  I liked the smell, the touch and look of those greenhouses (even though the doors were so low I had to duck to get in).  I liked watching the little plants grow from seed. Seeds small as dust.

Believe it or not, I did end up living in that shack just outside the fence.  And it was a real shack. Built around the 20’s for Filipino dairy workers, I couldn’t stand up in the kitchen or bedroom because the ceiling was too low.  The roses good.

As the “Greenhouse Manager”, I could not stray too far from the greenhouses.  The vents were not automatic and required the pull of a chain or rope to operate. I could go out on weekend mornings but when the fog cleared, I had to return promptly to open the vents before the houses got too hot.  Likewise, in the evening, I had to close them. If the fog blew in early, I had close them then.  Seven days a week.  For me, this was not a problem.  I didn’t have anywhere else I wanted to be.  I lived at that place and for that work.  I thought it was kind of like sailing a boat.  I read books.  I made a vegetable garden in the back yard.  I cleared a huge patch of blackberry vines and found a house under it.

Below is a picture of me outside my “office”.  We were doing some underground work across the road and I propped the camera on the rubble pile, set the timer, ran over and struck a casual pose.

Andy at the Brown Bulb Ranch


In the winter evenings, when the begonia seedlings were in the greenhouses, I would go around and light the heaters.  For the most part the heaters were a pipe with holes drilled along the top with a line of gas fed into one end with a valve on the inlet.  I would kick the valve open with one foot and toss a lighted match in the general direction of the pipe, and the flame would come on with a satisfying “whoomp” and dance about three feet high in the middle of the greenhouse floor.  Had to turn them off in the AM too.

The begonias were sown by hand in redwood flats.  Below you can see a picture of me sowing them.  Sometimes I would get behind and return after dinner to finish the sowing.  The propagation greenhouses were a balmy 78 degrees in middle of winter, they had heat that ran as hot water in pipes under the benches from an antique boiler. I put classical music (KBAQ when they were still classical) on a little radio at one end of the house and would finish my work, sometimes not until 10:00 at night.

Sowing open flats of begonias at the Brown Bulb Ranch

Although the greenhouses were old, they were scrupulously clean.  The redwood benches in the propagation houses were painted every year, before sowing, with a 50–50 mix of diesel and formaldehyde.  They had a kind of oily green color from so many years of this treatment they looked like particularly ugly ebony.  The flats were steamed in a big old pressure cooker that was bought when the canneries from Cannery Row closed in Monterey.

There were many little out of the way corners in the Old Ranch.  There was a small greenhouse off the propagation houses, maybe 20 x 30, glass roofs like most were, old Lord and Burnham chain pull vent openers. The house hadn’t been used in years and was full of whatever wanted to grow there.  There were lots of tomatillos gone wild that filled one side to the gutters.  The tomatillo fruits would dry in their papery skins until they were like big fat blond raisins.  I would go in a pick a few once in a while during work.  

One day, I don’t remember why, I was instructed to get this greenhouse back into operation.  That meant fixing whatever was broken and taking the floor back to clean dirt.  Before I started on the floor, I was struck by how beautiful it all was.  I ran home (I was living in that shack by then) and got my camera.  Below you see a picture of a little weed arrangement on the floor. Some sort of begonia-gone-native in the middle. By the afternoon this photo was taken it was all dirt again.

I became interested in how greenhouses worked (and in how to automate them; selfishly) and in how to improve the crop that became my charge.  I was going to the local community college at night and taking all the hort classes I could.

We left the Old Ranch in 1989, the year of the Earthquake, and built a new facility in Moss Landing.  The greenhouse are all controlled by an environmental computer now. One that has been upgraded through the years. 

I now sit at home, fifteen miles away, and look at the condition of the greenhouse on my computer, cup of coffee in hand, and change the set points, open a vent, turn on a heater, or whatever, with the touch of a key. I’m removed.  I’m here, they are way over there.

Looking back, it seems wonderful.  Begonias gave me a life. Who knows what I really thought then, time has turned it all to myth in my mind.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Scarlet Begonias

Roseform Scarlet

“Once in a while you get shown the light; In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
from  “Scarlet Begonias” by the San Francisco band The Grateful Dead.

Well, I’m no Grateful Dead fan, but I am a begonia grower and it’s true you get shown the light in the strangest places, stay with me and I’ll show you.

For 30 years I have been growing tuberous begonias, approximately three million per year.  Let’s see that makes, oh somewhere around 90,000,000 begonias. (no wonder I’m tired). 

Before that, I was sort of nomadic.  I left Michigan in 1968 for the corner of Haight and Ashbury, San Francisco.  I traveled to the high Himalayas, sailed the South China Sea. I was always looking for a good light.  I am settled here on the coast of California, where the fog gives a beautiful soft light to fields of begonias.

I don’t want to write a how-to blog about begonias, I can’t, I am no expert on how to grow begonias, but I know some experts. 

There are other things to write about begonias
Let’s write about being shown the light in the strangest of places.
Let’s write about beauty.
About fashion versus style.
About home-grown versus mass produced.
About breeding begonias.
About the Old Ranch
About the history of this crop
Maybe, even something about growing begonias, who knows, let’s see where we go.

I want to make a couple things clear.  I do not grow begonias for a hobby.  I am a professional begonia grower.  I work for Golden State Bulb Growers.  We are the developer of the AmeriHybrid begonia.

I don’t however think that makes me a better begonia grower.  I learn all the time from the begonia hobbyist.  The person who grows begonias for a hobby has a passion that I can borrow from and learn from.  For a hobby, I grow vegetables.

I don’t know about different types of begonias.  I know about Begonia X Tuberhybrida.

I learned my trade from Todd Brown, who learned from his father Worth.  Below you see a picture of myself and Todd Brown taken in 1985.  I am studiously taking notes from that years “specific crosses” this is how I learned. (I will talk about that process in future posts)

Todd Brown (back to camera) and Andy Snow

I first photographed tuberous begonias in the Himalayas ten years earlier.  I didn’t even know what those beautiful flowers were. 

Below you see a picture of a Tibetan tending to tuberous begonias on a window sill of Ling Rinpoche’s house in Macleod Gange, above Dharmasala India. 

Imagine my surprise when many years later, now working as begonia grower, I finally had the time to go over the hundreds of slides I had taken during my travels and found these photos.  Hey! I know what those are. Those are begonias!

It’s been a long road, one that settled in sandy soil and drifting fog.

Begonia fields in Marina, Ca

I hope we can start a dialogue.  I will try to post at least once per week.

Best Regards -Andy