Need another reason to visit Orange in autumn? Each year through March and April the lovely Blowes Conservatory in Cook Park houses a begonia show. It’s not the most jaw-droppingly huge begonia show (flower size-wise or plant-number wise, or visitor-wise) but it is surely the most charming. The allure starts with the glasshouse itself, which was built in 1934 and named for the mayor of the moment. His name lives on in the Art Nouveau-style font spelling out the buildings’s name in stained glass.
Inside the glasshouse though, it’s Michel Begon’s name that lives on. He was an French official of the ancien regime and an enthusiastic plant-collector. He met and impressed fellow plant-collector Charles Plumier and when Plumier found a fascinating ground-covering flowering plant in Brazil in 1690 he named it after his mentor. (The favour was returned when Plumier was immortalised with plumeria, better known as frangipani.)
Plumier died not long after describing his begonia and it wasn’t until 1777 that begonias arrived in Europe and a good century after that before the hybridisation of tuberous begonias began to take off. But when it did, it exploded. Among the many thrills on offer were the incredible flower colours and shapes of the tuberous begonias, that could be as refined as an aristocrat or as gawdy as a showgirl.
Enthusiasts, forgetting the plant’s origins in the Andes, considered tuberous begonias tropical and grew them in glasshouses. That encouraged the kind of horticulture that focusses on individual flowers, which are held at eye-level, demanding attention. So it’s all about the flowers, which need to be supported or they’d snap the slender stems. Individual plants look a bit gawky and unwieldy, but crowded together, with the sun streaming through the windows, a begonia glasshouse is a treat.
The begonias shown here are called non-stops and their double flowers are palm-sized. (That’s just the simple white bedding begonia grown at their feet to disguise the bare legs.) More impressive than these are the simply named large-flowered tuberous begonias, whose flowers allow for a truthful use of the cliche – as big as dinner plates. These tend to be for the enthusiasts only, and the most widely grown tuberous begonias are non-stops like these that are rose-form or camellia-flowered types. And yes, they really do look like a japonica camellia.
There are also ruffled ones; lacy, pleated-petal forms; and the picotee types. These have trim of some contrasting colour on the edges of the petals, like this:
There are a couple of different begonia shows in Australia: a big one in Ballarat in March, with lots of large-flowered types; a smaller display in the glasshouse of the Tasmanian Botanic Gardens in Hobart; and my favourite – the little show in Blowes Conservatory in Orange. Don’t miss it next year, (and while you’re i n Cook Park, drop into the craft shop for a bag of the homemade hazelnut caramel slice!)