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


  1. What a great post. I love the photos. I still find it amazing that Ansel Adams took photos of my father's family.

  2. Andy, this was lovely. What a family treasure to have the article and family photos!
    Patti Crum Schreiner

  3. Hi Patti,
    Thanks for the comment. I have wanted to put this post up since I started this blog last summer. I am glad you like it and I agree that it is nice to have the history both family and crop.
    regards -Andy

  4. Dear Andy! Thanks a lot for your delightful absorbing stories! Maybe-be-be-begonias whisper them to you? Because your face is always near their faces... Best wishes, Igor Prokhorov, Moscow, Russia.

  5. Hi Igor,

    Thanks for writing. Can you grow begonias in Moscow?
    I don't know if begonias whisper to me, but I sometimes dream about them.
    All the best to you -Andy

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