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Botanic Garden Alive With Blooming Begonias

The Botanic Garden cultivates a vast array of plant life, from the towering trees and verdant bushes found in jungles to the cactuses and shrubs native to desert climates. A new collection of begonias offers a microcosm of this diversity within a single family of plants.

There are more than 1,500 species of naturally occurring begonias, from wax begonias — the flowery shrubs that commonly sprout in home gardens — to more obscure vines and tubers. The collection on display at the Botanic Garden encompasses the full spectrum of begonias, also incorporating a colorful array of hybridized plants.

“It’s phenomenal that this is all one family — they’re incredibly varied,” Public Programs Coordinator Sally Bourrie said. “They’re really beautiful and unusual things.”

Tucked neatly in a cool, concrete space adjacent to the Botanic Garden’s domed artificial jungle, the display comprises about 200 plants of varying shapes and sizes. Botanists selected them from the Botanic Garden’s full collection of about 1,200 begonias, one of its largest catalogues of a single family of plants. While there are typically begonias scattered throughout the gardens, this is the first time they have been arranged together in one place.

The juxtaposition reveals striking differences. Some of the begonias are small, flowering shrubs that would seem at home in a garden; flowery vines wind their way around thick stems; a giant shrub with huge waxy leaves has an almost primordial feel to it; a particularly large plant rises out of its pot with broad, tapering leaves whose branches diverge from the center like palm fronds.

Some of the varieties are commonly grown and sold commercially. Others hail from remote regions of the world, particularly tropical swaths of Asia and South America. A few of the begonias are rare enough that they have not yet been officially named — a plant with round, wrinkly leaves reminiscent of a cabbage plant bears the placeholder designation “U557.”

Kyle Wallick, a botanist with the Botanic Garden, said some of the begonias are from “niche groups” native to highly specific locations, such as rocky outcroppings, and require precise conditions of light and soil quality to flourish.

“In this case, it’s probably adaptation to very specific, small, restricted growth areas,” Wallick said.

While divergences of form are partially a function of the natural process of adaptation, human engineering also played a role in producing some of the plants. Many specimens are much larger than the kind that would be found in a nursery because of the work of expert growers.

In addition, about half of the begonias are hybrids whose cultivators register and name their unique creations through the American Begonia Society. As a result, begonias with formal scientific names such as “Begonia elaeagnifolia” stand alongside plants named “Freddie,” “Cracklin’ Rosie” or “My Special Angel.”

Rather than the products of natural selection, the personal plants result from the deliberate combination of pre-existing varieties. The idiosyncratic results are some of the more beautiful offerings in the collection.

“The plants, you can tell they’re connected to real people’s lives and tastes,” Bourrie said.

The begonias are on display through May 22.

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Photos of the week ending December 8, 2023