Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Begonia Breeding at Golden State Bulb Growers

Warning, this post contains a lengthy description of our begonia breeding program, I am afraid it will be terribly boring for the general reader (and maybe everyone else too).

When I became the begonia breeder for Golden State Bulb Growers (at that time the Brown Bulb Ranch) the Begonia x Tuberhybrida was already a well established product with a world wide market.  Tuberous begonias were among the first begonia species to be hybridized. 

I am happy to give a history of tuberous begonia breeding, but I am sure that information is available elsewhere.

Although I have messed around with species begonias, my real work has always been within the established hybrids. 

Growing tuberous begonias from seed for tubers is our business, and it has an inherent problem that the vegetative producer does not face.  Our goal is perfectly formed, large male flower (It is the male flower that is so showy).  The ideal flower is, however, sterile.  So, we must keep some imperfect flowering plants around to provide pollen.  Pollen is our most precious commodity, not seed.  Give me good pollen, I will produce enough good seed.  Good pollen comes late, or some years, not at all.  A plant that will contribute it’s pollen but not its characteristic for imperfect flowers in rare.  The resulting crosses are therefore not entirely uniformly perfect.  I strive, as a breeder to keep the percentages of good double flowers high, in some types it approaches 100%, other types; not so much.

In a previous post, I showed an old photo of myself and Todd Brown grading crosses in Marina. 

We used these crosses to evaluate our mother stock.  We would take the pollen from one pollen plant (called a “sire”) and put it on a specific seed parent (called a “dam”) we would hang a little paper tag on the pod that received the pollen with both parent’s numbers.  In this way we could grade the mother stock by looking at the crosses.  We would, for example, look at a series of plantings where the only difference was the sire, same dam.  We could then deduce that any variation in the population was due to the sire.  Also, if all the crosses were bad, we could deduce that the sire was not so good.  Same was done where the sire was the same, different dams, same deductive procedure.  We graded for both flowers and plant form because we are always looking for crosses that present the bloom well. We also brought in unique individuals we found for future mother stock.   

In this way we rated our mother stock plants from A to C with plus and minus, making 10 grades.  We wrote out a score card for each plant that stayed with the tuber.  This score card would record how it performed in crosses, how reliable the pollen production is (if a sire) and other characteristics .  Every year we rewrote the score card adding that years information.  With over 6,000 mother stock writing the cards was a big job.  Every year we discarded the mother stock that got the worse grades and added pots from our previous years selections.

 Below you see a picture of me making crosses in the 80s, the score cards are clearly visible in the photo.  The thing around my neck is a metal holder that contains a rectangular piece of glass that has been painted black on the back side, this was used for collecting pollen that was applied to the female flower (begonias being monoecious) using a small brush.

We would arrange the mother stock pots on the bench by type, then by the grade of the individual.  For example, the first pot on the bench would be the highest graded sire, the next one the second graded sire etc. After the sires came the dams, highest rated first.  We would also cut our highest rated parents.  This arranging was done so that the pollinator would take all the available pollen from the highest rated sire and only after that was exhausted, go to the second highest rated.  Conversely, if only a small amount of pollen was available, it would go on the highest rated dam.  All female flowers had to be pollinated or picked so that no dud pods would be processed.  When we pollinate a flower, we nick a petal with our fingernails to show the work is done and not waste additional pollen on that flower again.

After a few years, it became obvious that a better solution was to find the one best cross, whatever the parents, and make that cross over and over again until a better one could be found.  This was achieved by actively cutting the best parents until we had enough pollen and seed parents to supply all the seed we needed.  Recently, we have been able to do this with tissue culture. This is easier said than done, some individual begonias just do not take well from cuttings, unless you take a bit of tuber with the cutting, I don’t know why.  The same ones that don’t cut well, don’t tissue culture well. (If anyone reading this has a good cutting protocol, can you please share it in the comments.)

The only danger in this improvement in our seed production, is that it is tempting to discard mother stock plants that are not, anymore, being used for production.  There is an economic incentive to keep the mother stock as lean as possible.  We therefore risk losing genetic diversity.  We keep old seed and seed from past crosses as well as a good selection of non-productive plants for this reason.

Plant breeders sometimes use inbreeding as a technique and Worth Brown mentions using this tool with begonias, in his book “Tuberous Begonias” published in 1948.  We also use inbreeding to get new types and make improvements in existing types.  Begonias do not take well to being inbred and the breeder soon loses germination and vigor.  However, it is much easier to get that one characteristic your looking for. You can inbreed either by putting the plants pollen on it’s own female flowers called a “self” on the another individual with the exact same parents called a “sib” (short for sibling). 

In order to pull this program off, you have to have two lines going with the characteristic you want.  The two lines are not related.  When both lines come true, no mater how weak they seem, you can re-combine the two lines and get back the hybrid vigor that you lost during inbreeding.  Sometime times further work is needed past the F1 stage to make a fully marketable plant.

Using this technique, we were able to develop the On Top® line within a relatively short time.

On Top Sunset, GSBG Photo

Because we have been breeding with our own material so much, I am always on the look-out for new material.  In the past I have traded seed with Australian begonia breeders.   Recently, Antonelli Brothers, a long time begonia breeder with which we have had a long relationship, went out of business and we were able to acquire their mother stock; a beautiful collection of plants that gives us lots of opportunity to combine the two lines and make something better than either one on it’s own.

All plant breeders must make compromises. The plant breeder must make decisions about what one or two characteristics he values most and must make his selections based on those criteria.  As it often happens, those traits he, or his superiors, don’t value are the traits that sometimes haunt him later. 

I was taught to always breed with the plant in mind, not to make decisions on which hybrid is better based on it’s ability to produce large tubers. This is true despite the fact that we are a bulb company and charge according to tuber size. Big tubers make us money.  Some of our crosses, like the Dark Leaf Red are horrible tuber sizers, I would be doing my company a favor if I could improve it’s ability to make larger tubers.

Dark Leaf Red Tuberous Begonia

Other companies do select for bulb size. It’s kind of a running joke in Belgium that the breeder goes thorough the bulb trays, in the storage shed after harvest, and picks the largest tubers for his breeding/production program.  Maybe it’s just a joke but I’ve heard it from several places.

Below you see a me grading crosses at the Manresa ranch in La Selva Beach a couple years ago.  I am making notes on a little Palm thing.  The stick under my arm is to enable me to reach across the bed and tip a flower so I can see it.

Below you see me, yesterday (8/14/12), looking at this year's crosses.  Same Palm thing, I gotta get a new hat.

Below is a shot of cross #12012200. A pink roseform. Notice the high percent of fully double flowers and how they are presented on top of the plant.  This looks like it may be a good cross!


Using these techniques, Golden State Bulb Growers has been able to produce products unique on the world market.  Our lace begonia series, a reverse picotee, is not available from other begonia breeders.  As a result, we sell seed of this series to large begonia tuber producers in Europe.  In fact, European begonia producers produce more tubers of this series than we do here in the States, all from seed we sold to them.

Red  Lace on our porch

Appricot Lace, GSBG  Photo

Our Daffodil Begonia is an old type first noted as a mutant variety in 1896, we have kept this type in breeding and in production and have made improvements.  It is considered very rare.  J. Haegeman in his book Tuberous Begonias notes them as being variously named “B. Tubereauz a fleur de narcisse”, “Daffodil-flowered begonia”, “B. narcissiflora” and several other names.  He finishes the chapter on this begonia by writing “As this group is no longer found in commerce, any discussion of its name has only a theoretical value.”  Well, it is still in commerce and we are the only ones to have it.  It is, in my opinion, a product for a collector not for the person who likes an easy to grow large flowered begonia.

Salmon Daffodil GSBG Photo

Breeding programs are expensive and their pay back is very long.  Sales of the product have to support the program.  When sales are slow, the breeding is the first thing to be limited.

-Andy Snow


  1. I like your old gray fedora hat(!)

  2. Andy, what happened to your Forum posts?

  3. Hi Joan,

    I don't know, they've pulled them all off. Maybe they think I am too "commerical" or something.

    I don't know if there is anything I can do.

  4. Hi..any chance the Antonelli cultivars will be available this spring (2013)?

  5. Hi Anon,

    Thanks for the question. At this time, we are interbreeding our stock and Anotnelli's stock. You should try ours, most people think them healther and better. The only thing we don't do is the named cuttings, but if you bought seed produced tubers, you should like ours just fine.
    I don't know that growing pure Antonelli lines would increase our sales overall. What do you think?
    regards -A

  6. Your begonias are beautiful. How often do the Ruffeled Begonias bloom? Or would they be more for collectors. I have apx 20 shade container's throughout part of my display garden in Wisc. They love the summers with humidity and not to hot. The Picotte's are cool too and Roseform as well. The norm is I grow non stop how would they differ. I would love some of yours. Thanks a bunch

  7. Hi Anon,
    Thanks for the comment, the begonias will bloom until frost. If you grow Non-Stops, you will grow ours exactly the same way. They may need a stake late in the season to help hold them up, they are bigger than Non-Stops that's all.
    Thanks again for reading and commenting on my blog.
    Regards -Andy

  8. WOW! This morning, I had the very good fortune to attend the Demo Trials at the Golden State Bulb Company in Moss Landing (just north of Monterey) CA as part of the American Begonia Society - Leslie Hatfield Monterey Bay Branch (! Our group included many members from the Monterey Branch as well as a few from the San Francisco Begonia Society ( and the Santa Clara Valley Begonia Society ( in San Jose. If anyone has any doubts about the quality of Andy's breeding program, forget your doubts! The plants we saw today were GORGEOUS! Also, the sizes of the plants amazed me! The upright tuberous begonias that were on display varied from 24" to over 36" high with lots of large flowers! The hanging type tuberous begonias were also HUGE, with lots of pendulous branches covered with large flowers - some hanging baskets hung over 36" down over the edge of the pots! I have purchased plants grow locally from Golden State Bulb Company by various nurseries in the Monterey and San Francisco bay areas and they were beautiful and held up well throughout the season. I also recently purchased and planted several of the hanging type begonias - all from GSBC, and can't wait for them to begin sprouting and blooming! I would highly recommend anyone try growing their tuberous begonias!

  9. Thanks Mr. Turner,

    It was great to see you and the rest of the crew yesterday.

    Thanks for the kind words.
    I am always supprised how many people I meet who don't know what tuberous begonias are, so it' a pleasure to meet people who appreciate them.

    Thanks for your visit, I hope we meet again soon.
    Regards -Andy

  10. Hay, Andy,
    My name is Roberta and I am from Lithuania, a small country from Europe;
    We love, enjoy and grow begonias: nonstop;rex hanging; we are proud of them, love each bloom and leaf;BUT I ahve one longlasting question: as long as we live in the country, there the Winter is quite cold and long, what can we do to make them bloom earlier? Thank you in advance,

  11. Hi Roberta,
    Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. Many people start begonia tubers in flats (like shallow trays) of soil indoors. The tubers are then repotted after they are up and growing.
    If you provide lights (florescent will do if it's kept close over the pots) you can grow them for awhile indoors. They won't make a very grand show like this so get them out when the danger of frost is past.
    I hope you have good luck with your begonias this coming year. Please send photos if you can.

    Best Regards -Andy

  12. Hi Andy love reading your blogs. I am relatively new to growing large flowered tuberous begonias and am just besotted by their showy beauty. I was wondering how i can go about purchasing some of your tubers or seeds here in Australia? cheers cheryl

  13. Hi Anon,
    Thanks for commenting on my blog. I don't think we can send tubers to Australia because of import restrictions. I know we can send seed. We are working on our retail website at and you should be able to purchase seed there.
    Let me know how it works out.
    Regards –Andy
    Ps. Where in Australia are you? I used to live in Darwin.

  14. Hi Andy thanks for your reply i will look at the calbegonias website. I live right down the bottom of down under in Hellyer Beach Tasmania. Darwin is wonderful had a holiday there last year,the weather is much milder here in tassie. Look forward to reading more about your begonias. Cheers Cheryl Poke

    1. Hi Andy tried to order some seeds but seems you dont ship to australia. What a shame would have loved to have had some. Cheryl

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  16. Dear Andy, does the calbegonias send to Lithuania? Will I be able to order seeds and bulbs and get till January ?

  17. Hi Cheryl,
    I don't understand why we can't send seed to Australia. I'll check into it.

  18. Hi Roberta,
    Thanks for your interest in our begonias. I know that import restrictions often make it difficult to send plant material to other countries. Seed is usually easier than tubers.
    I'll ask our sales team about it.
    Regards -Andy

    1. Andy,
      I will wait for any comments of you regarding bulbs ir seeds; or maybie they have a representative in Europe?

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  20. Hi Roberta,
    I saw on the website that they said that we don't ship out of the country. But I also saw that that may change soon! I'll keep pushing to sell world-wide and let you know what I find out.
    Best Regards -Andy

  21. Hello, Andy, have aything has changed concerning begonias 'bulbs shipping to Europe?


  22. Hi
    I wonder where to buy begonia nonstop seeds? These varieties flower pot or yard?