Bodacious Begonias: Nationally-recognized Collection at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden
Mar 21, 2016 01:23PM
By Ryan Frisch
Most botanic gardens are known for their collections of plants such as elms, hollies, maples, oaks, palms and others. But there’s a little-known and outstanding collection at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, the nationally-recognized begonia collection.
The Fort Worth Botanic Garden (FWBG) recently received the distinction of being accredited by the North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC) for its begonia collection. The NAPCC is a network of botanical gardens and arboreta working to coordinate a continent-wide approach to plant germplasm preservation and to promote high standards of plant collections management. The FWBG is the only botanic garden in Texas to receive NAPCC accreditation and the only botanic garden in the United States to be recognized for a begonia collection.
Begonias grow natively in the subtropical and tropical regions of the world, including China, Taiwan, Vietnam, South America, India and Africa. They are not native to the United States. Begonias have been grouped according to similar characteristics and cultural requirements and comprise eight types, as follows: Cane-like, Thick-stemmed, Rhizomatous, Tuberous, Shrub-like, Semperflorens, Rex cultorum, and Trailing-scandents. Most flowers are pink or white, but some can be orange, such as those of the species Begonia digswelliana and B. rubrifolia. Rhizomatous begonias bloom in the winter whereas others (canes and other types) bloom in spring and summer. The Rex cultorum group includes many that have gorgeous foliage with striking streaks, splotches or spots of different colors against green or silver backgrounds. The FWBG sells species and hybrids at its spring and fall plant sales and these spectacular specimens always draw a crowd and appeal to many buyers. These begonias must be kept as house plants, although they can be planted outside in containers or beds in a shady location during the summer. Their striking and colorful foliage alone makes them a stunning accent plant in the summer shade garden. They must, or course, be brought in during the winter.
You will find the extensive begonia collection at the FWBG housed in the fiberglass greenhouse located in the center of the garden. As you enter this house, you will see bench after bench of both species and hybrids of begonias that will amaze you. A species is a plant that, when pollinated with its same kind, results in the same plant. When a species is crossed with a different species, the result is a hybrid. The combination may look like a combination of both parents, one of the parents, or something completely different. Presently, there are 370 species in the collection. Begonia dayii is an easy-to-grow, rhizomatous species from Mexico that has shiny, yellow-green upper leaf surfaces with dark brown veins, rust-colored undersides, and long, arching stems that bear dainty clusters of cream-colored flowers that contrast nicely with the foliage. B. dregei, a semi-tuberous species from South Africa, looks like a little bonsai tree with a woody trunk, bulbous root and pendulous, white flowers. B. paulensis has very large, apple-green, orbicular leaves consisting of crinkled sections all across the leaf surface. Among the very rare species is the crinkle-leaf begonia (B. moyesii), which has heart-shaped leaves with a crinkled leaf surface. Other rare species have orbicular to palmate leaves that are solid green, or with silver spots, or with dark green splotches against a background of lime green. Especially striking are the leaves of rare species #U512, which has angel-wing-shaped leaves with splotches of burgundy and silver against a background of green and edged in burgundy.
The collection also contains 665 hybrids. Immense is a hybrid with particularly large, lobed leaves with serrated margins. Tall stalks rise above the foliage and produce clusters of baby-pink flowers. The hybrid Jumbo Jet has large, drooping clusters of soft orange flowers set against dark green leaves. Many of the hybrids are “heritage varieties” – old hybrids that cannot be reproduced again because the species parents have disappeared. Records are kept on each plant in the collection – description, country of origin, parentage, hybridizer, known crosses, cultural comments, date received or propagated, bloom color, timing of bloom and location within the greenhouse. The collection of species and hybrid begonias in the fiberglass greenhouse is closed to the general public but open for tours by appointment.
The place where the general public can view samples of the begonia collection is the “exhibition greenhouse,” a glass house adjacent to The Gardens Restaurant. Upon entering this house, you will see before you in the main room brick-lined beds featuring a multitude of green and strikingly variegated hybrid begonias beautifully showcased in combination with a variety of tropical plants, logs, stones, sculpture and water. The back portion of this house features wrought-iron furniture where you can sit and take in the array of species begonias. This house is open free of charge to garden visitors 365 days a year from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
A group of twelve volunteers presently attend to the FWBG collection on a regular basis. Volunteers also conduct programs on begonias, give tours of the collection and teach classes on propagation. They are involved in a lot of community outreach because education is very important to the begonia volunteers and members of the ABS. If you would like to join this dedicated group of begonia enthusiasts in caring for the collection at the FWBG, or if you would like to schedule a tour of the begonia collection, please contact begonia curator Debbie Garrett via e-mail at Deborah.Garrett@fortworthtexas.gov.
Now that you know about the amazing and nationally-recognized begonia collection at the FWBG, you’ll want to plan a trip to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden to see this impressive collection for yourself!
By Steve Huddleston
Steve Huddleston is the senior horticulturist at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and co-author of Easy Gardens for North Central Texas.