Saturday, January 26, 2013

Tuberous Begonias, Color Photos by Ansel Adams

“The Mockingbird Flower”

September 19, 1950 Life Magazine.

The text reads: U.S BREEDERS GLAMORIZE ONCE HOMELY BEGONIA When Charles Plumier, the French botanist, came upon a strange new flower in the West Indies about 1690, he named it for Santo Domingo’s Governor Michel Begon and took home a specimen.  The begonia was interesting botanically, but it was not very striking: its blooms were small, nondescript and dwarfed by the plant’s jagged leaves.  European horticulturists improved on the tuberous begonia’s looks, but after 200 years it was still a rather plain-looking flower.  About 1920, however, U.S. flower growers became interested in Plumier’s plant and began crossbreeding on a big scale. In 30 years they have transformed the begonia as no other flower has ever been changed so short a time.  The little wildflower has been turned into one of the most spectacular.  Hundreds of new varieties have been created, some bright solid colors, some specked, dome with frills and beards.  Their lush blossoms are often a foot in diameter.  All the begonias on these pages (except the one at the right) are new American types, developed principally in California at the Brown Bulb Ranch and Vetterle and Reinelt farm, which together produce more that 90% of U.S. begonias.  These firms have developed so many new strains, some resembling such well-known flowers as the camellia, rose and carnation the begonia is now referred to as the “mockingbird flower.”

Here in the West we value Ansel Adams, and his photos, very highly.  His black and white photos of our mountains and wild places had a huge influence on our view of wild places and the development of park systems to (ideally) protect them.

The fact is that Ansel Adams took in a lot of “commercial” work to pay the bills.  He was highly regarded as a commercial photographer and the glorious art prints we have come to associate with him did not pay the bills until later in his life.

He wrote to his friend David McAlpin as early as 1938, “I have to do something in the relatively near future to regain the right track in photography. I am literally swamped with “commercial” work — necessary for practical reasons, but very restraining to my creative work.”

As some of you know by now, I work as the begonia breeder for Golden State Bulb Growers, a company that used to be known as the Brown Bulb Ranch.  The Brown Bulb Ranch was located in Capitolia, California, and in 1950 was being run by Worth Brown, son of founder, James Brown.  When Life magazine commissioned this article on begonias, they hired Ansel Adams to do the photography.

During this photo shoot of the Capitola begonias for Life Magazine, Mr. Adams stayed in the adobe house of Worth and Jane Brown at the Brown Bulb Ranch.   Barclay Brown, son of Worth and Jane,(and my father-in-law) remembers Ansel Adam's visit clearly, Barclay talked to my wife and me about it at dinner the other day.  Barclay would have been around 18 at the time.  Worth and Jane reminisced, when they were alive, about the visit of Mr. Adams.  By the time of his visit, he was well known and Worth and Jane were active in society and interested in art and, I imagine, pleased to be hosting so eminent an artist.. Barclay told us Mr. Adams played the piano after dinner.  Mr. Adams taught himself to play the piano at the age of twelve. He was an accomplished pianio player and music was, at first, his intended occupation.

 I was surprised when I first saw these photos many years ago at the Brown Bulb Ranch because I did not realize that Ansel Adams had any color photos in circulation.

I hope you enjoy these photos as much as I do. 

The text reads: “A Flood of Flowers fills the greenhouse at the farm of Vetterle and Reinelt at Capitola, Calif.  Most of them are standard tuberous begonias, of all shades and colors, but at the top of greenhouse are hanging basket begonias, which are just coming into popularity.  Begonias can be grown either from seed or from tubers. To get them to produce seed they must be hand-pollinated.  Bees and insects do not do a very dependable job of fertilization, possibly because the begonias have little or no fragrance.  Their season, which began in May, will last another few weeks.  One big asset of begonias is that they are comparatively free from plant diseases."

The Text Reads: "A Fiery Guard over a field of begonias is this oil heater on stilts, which sends out infrared radiation to protect an acre of flowers or vegetables against frost.  Begonias generally fare best in moderate climate like that of California, but hardier species are being developed to withstand a wider temperature range."

  Ansel Adams even took some photos of Worth and Jane and their sons Barclay and Todd during his visit.  We found the photos in an old album that belonged to Worth and Jane.

Notation says "1949 taken by Ansel Adams" Worth Brown on the left and family portrait on the right.

 I want to leave you with my favorite Ansel Adams photo.  Moonrise, Hernandez New Mexico.   Although I like the photos he took of  wild places, I really like this one because it's both wild, lonely and inhabitable.

Best Regards -Andy

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Degrees of Good

Or: Up from industry.. to what?

“The best is the enemy of the good.” Voltaire

What Voltaire meant by this famous quote is that we often sacrifice what’s right, fine and, good to try for something that’s maybe just a little better. 

I know several people that are excellent in their chosen field.  Excellent martial artist, excellent musician.  The thing is, their lives are all screwed up.  Because life is about balance, not extremes. Excellent is extreme.

I am a believer in moderation in all things. Of course you have to include moderation in that equation too.  I mean come on, don’t take your moderation to an extreme. Get excited about something.  Play music ‘till late at night once in a while. Prune your front hedge to look like circus animals and dinosaurs. Or whatever.

What does this have to do with begonias?  Why does it always have to be about begonias?

I’ll tell you.

Judith Taylor in her article, The Begonia in California wrote “The Brown Bulb Ranch grew tuberous begonias on an industrial scale in Capitola for many years. The firm saw the possibilities in the mass market and grew millions of plants each year”

I don’t know about you, but it kind of makes me feel like we’re Folgers coffee or Budweiser Beer. 

 We’re better than that, maybe not excellent, but good, we were back then and we are more so now.

It is a fact that we have based our business, whether begonia or calla, on seed.  Our company was very involved in developing true seed strains of tuberous begonias (our company history says we ARE the developers of lines that are true for color)  Previous to true lines, all tuberous begonia hybrids were vegetatively propagated and very expensive.  Seed lines enabled us to bring the price of tuberous begonias down and produce millions for the market place.  That’s good, maybe it’s not excellent, but is it industrial?

 My job is to breed seed lines that are as good as I can make them.  But the fact is that all seed lines are kind of a crap shoot (except true F1s).  The genes recombine and the dice roll.  I have some lines in which every male bloom is a solid multi-petaled double.  Others, well, not so much.  I look at all our 54 varieties and decide which are the weakest. Then for a few years, we work on those and improve them.

The only other successful seed grown begonia is the Non-Stop.  A popular begonia with smaller flowers suited to garden beds and, so I am told, very popular as cemetery plantings in Europe.  In parts of Canada, Non-Stop is synonymous with tuberous begonia; like Kleenex is synonymous with face tissue, (again something I’ve been told).

Our equivalent to the Non-Stop is the On-Top. Get it? Non-Stop, On-Top.  The difference is ours are all bi-color or picotee because, at the time, we didn’t want to go head-to-head with Non Stops in the market place (they were too cheap).  Now they have picotees too, so it goes.

But our “standard” begonia is the large flowering “exhibition” type begonias (and hanging baskets).  You know, the spectacular ones.

Among the large flowered begonias there are degrees of good.  (And that’s only if we all agree on what’s desired in the realm of floral beauty, other opinions are welcome.)

Our seed lines knocked the socks off of Antonelli's seed lines.  I know, I grew Antonelli's begonias.  They brought me their seed and I returned to them tubers.  They had their own mother stock and genetics.  From their mother stock they took cuttings.   They called them Antonelli’s Champions.  They were all identical.  The best they had (we have those plants now).

Antonelli's Champions.  Notice my highlighter over the size. "1 inch (sometimes smaller)"! Holly smokes!

Blackmore and Langdon.  Great begonias. There's a mark for us to shoot at.  We could pick on them for this or that, I don’t like the fact that some have weak stems and don’t hold up the flowers very well.  But then again, the flowers are often huge.  Vegetatively propagated.  Expensive.

In some ways, cloning begonias is easier, you only have to find one good one.

The breeding may be easier but the production is harder and therefore, more expensive.

We vegetatively propagate only our Scented Begonias.

We used to have a program of named varieties that we (inside the company) called “Stake Stock” that were selected (staked) while the plants were in bloom and then hand dug before the Green Monster went through the field.  I’ve tried to reinstitute that program a couple time, with no success.  The sales department didn’t sell them, the warehouse crew threw them out and when  I sent a couple of the tubers to Paul Carlisle and I saw them in his greenhouse, I was not impressed with the results.  We will have to improve our performance if we want reinvigorate that program.  Next year, I will make the selections myself.

"Stake Stock" in our 1978 Catalog

Cover from the catalog above

But, let’s run the numbers.  Let’s say 5% are junk, 90% are good and 5% are excellent (or maybe it’s 10%-80%-10% or  20%-60%-20% whatever).  Do you want to pay me to find the 5% for you and charge you for that, or do you just want to buy a few tubers for the same price as the one I selected and take your chances?  You might get the junk, you’ll likely get the good and you might get the great.  The collection of begonias that you decide to keep will reflect your taste, not mine.

So, the question is, and why I started writing all this about three pages ago is this; I am wondering if we should start a vegetatively propagated begonia program for more than just Scented Begonias?  It’ll be two years before the first ones could come along.

Should we have three degrees of good;  the Clones, the Stake Stock and the Seed Lines?

Could we become less “Industrial” would we become “boutique”?  Or is that just one more way to lose money?

Other news and note in our tuberous begonia world.  Paul Carlisle and his lovely wife Laurel had a great article in the “Begonian”, which is the magazine of the American Begonia Society.  Great article, great photos and a wonderful cover shot by Gary Hunt.

For more of photos of Paul’s begonias by Gary Hunt clink here.

For an article I wrote about Paul click here.