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"


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful scented begonia history. Inspirational use of data farming and process analysis by artistic gardening pioneers.

  2. Are the Scentiment begonias still available? Thank you for this incredible blog post!

  3. Andy,
    I know Golden State Bulb Growers sold their stock. In your estimation which one of the fragrant begonias was the most fragrant? Woodriffs or Siebolds or Lemoines or Golden States?