August 5, 2016

The Lost Art of Growing Tuberous Begonias

First, the dahlia has made a comeback, second - maybe the gladiolus, third, or at least on deck should be the tuberous begonia - an old-fashioned classic which deserves a revisit, or dare I say, a resurrection, since they are almost forgotten by most who garden today. Let it me known that from this moment forward, I move that the tuberous begonia be considered as the ultimate summer potted bulb (tuber, really) for displays on decks, porches and even fire escapes. Suddenly, 'showy' is cool again, and believe me - nothing is showier than a giant, colorful pot of tuberous begonia blossoms in mid-summer.

At Connecticut's White Flower Farm, a very special offering of tuberous begonias exists - if you live anywhere in the North East - a visit may be worthwhile - for the Blackmore & Langdon strain from the famed UK nursery, is by far, superior to Dutch strains which we so often find at home centers in the spring.
A couple of weeks ago, while visiting White Flower Farm, I was treated to this amazing display of Blackmore & Langdon Tuberous Begonias. I remember seeing this collection 15 years ago (maybe even 25 years ago when I visited with my mom and sister!) , and I was thrilled and delighted that this American nursery still has made the effort to maintain a breathtaking collection of these tubers and plants, as well as offering these lovely (and admittedly, costly) tubers to the American market.

Cheryl Whalen has been tending the collection of tuberous begonias  at White Flower Farm for more than ten years, and her expertise has not gone un-noticed by this tuberous begonia fan. She shared with me that some of these tubers are now nearly 8 inches in diameter.

We can thank White Flower Farm head gardener, Cheryl Whalen who explained to me in passionate detail how she cares for the collection at White Flower Farm. The task isn't an easy one, which I was reminded of at the end of my visit when Cheryl had to leave a meeting to water the collection for the second time that day. This is an important collection, and it's beauty comes only from daily care, reminding us of how precious and demanding these tender tubers can be, and why the industrialist millionaires who once kept greenhouses and conservatories full of these plants at their summer estates in Newport and Connecticut, had to reduce their gardening staff's as well as losing their collections of summer blooming bulbs like these. This greenhouse is perhaps the last collection of an era, and I think we all sensed it's historic rarity.

Begonia 'Sugar Candy' is a large plant that I had to take home with me.

But there is little stopping those of us who care and whom appreciate such things, in sourcing and keeping a small collection of these relics of another age, on our summer porches, decks and poolside terraces. Let's save the Tuberous Begonia from extinction.

The colors and selection made photographic easy - I mean, there were not bad views!

Tuberous Begonias have always fascinated me. Once common, these summer blooming bulbs (tubers, really), bring forth rather gaudy, flouncy yet undeniably beautiful blooms - so large and perfectly artificial looking, they are almost unbearably artificial with their tenderness. I can also understand why these plants have fallen out of favor in our modern world. They can be a bit too showy for inclusion in outdoor planting schemes, one must start them indoors early in mid winter, and mostly, the good varieties are difficult to find today.

'Ivanhoe', a brilliant scarlet tuberous begonia so red, it hurts.

Tuberous Begonias,  have a fascinating history however. Becoming popular during the Victorian era, they fell out of favor after the 1970's.  The genus Begonia is huge, with many species and even more hybrids with which to temp us gardeners with, but it's this particular begonia has a complex family tree. It took six species to create this beauty, each plays a role in a pedigree that dates back to the mid 1800's.

'Harliquin' is  picottee form, some of my favorites.

Our large, modern selections began as single flowered wild species which where collected by the British firm Messrs Veitch & Sons in the mid 1800's for bringing what we now know as the tuberous begonia to cultivation, but perhaps no one is more worthy of thanks then is the firm of Blackmore & Langdon, the British firm which was founded by  two enthusiasts back in 1868. B&L can draw a direct line from the original explorers and breeders, to some varieties which are still available today. Few nurseries or horticultural firms can claim such provenance.

Image of the Blackmore & Langdon Nurseries  fields near Bath, England in 1937 - from the Bath in Time website.

The story of Blackmore & Langdon tuberous begonias goes back to the mid 1800's when British horticulture reached its peak period of growth. Charles Frederick Langdon (1868 - 1947) and James  Blackmore (1856 -1921), both born near Bath, England, with varied horticultural backgrounds,  founded the firm Blackmore & Langdon  - it was the year 1900. Both men had varying experiences with the new tuberous begonias and some experience with breeding the now sought after plants, yet their specialty at the time leaned more towards exhibition pansies, primroses and especially potted delphinium - each popular estate ornamental crops, which were popular in the era.

'Midas', and appropriate name for this golden yellow selection.

The two purchased breeding stock once the new nursery acquired greenhouses, sourcing out breeding stock from the handful of pre-1900 breeders in England. The  catalogs of B & L illustrate how styles change when it comes to plants. The 1901 catalog listed 25 new double varieties, sixty six older double varieties and twenty three singles. The list was expanded in 1909 with ten new double forms, with a total of 144 named varieties. Singles fell out of style by 1910 and the last un-named single was dropped in 1951.

By 1905, the firm became the chief source for new begonia varieties, in particular, tuberous forms. They quality was supreme, and the early breeding accomplished by Vetch and Son's fell from fashion. Belgian growers around the same time were also breeding and selling tuberous types, most notable the firm of Crousse and Lemon in Ghent, whom after seeing a display of B & L begonias in 1913 at the International Horticultural Exhibition in Ghent decided to focus their breeding on extending the quality of the B & L strains, breeding for larger tubers and even color.

The competition followed popularity throughout the early 20th century throughout Europe and the US. The main rival in the UK became the firm This. Ware Ltd. of Bexleyheath whose head breeder and grower Sam Pope was known as a fine grower and prodigious propagator (known to have rooted more than 15000 cutting each year). Apparently, the quality of the Ware begonias declined by the mid century, leaving the Blackmore & Langdon nursery as the primary global breeder of new and classic varieties of the highest form and quality.

An explosion of color - clearly, there is no wrong way to combine the colors and tones of tuberous begonias.

Like so many plants and flower in the 20th century, breeding halted during the war periods, with greenhouse focusing on food production but Blackmore & Langdon preserved what they called a 'nucleus of stock', preserving their genetic work which continues to factor into their breeding today.

America factors in as well, as the firm praised 'the American Millionaire' as being part of the reason why the firm survived through World War I.  Before 1913, varieties were named after wealthy British patrons (those whom could afford many gardeners), but the era of the American millionaire "those who had to have the very best and the latest sorts growing on his own estate and who was prepared to pay the highest prices for the privilege - that is, until the stock market crash in 1928." saved the firm as it struggled after the War.

Thus, Tuberous Begonias could be considered a bit elitist when one considers who one will integrate them into a contemporary garden - but then again, isn't an herb garden, a topiary or even a potted orchid elitist? Arguably, they were fashionable in their time, and what proper estate owner didn't want or crave a summer conservatory packed with colorful beauty which required a dozen gardeners to tend to, setting up displays and daily deadheading, watering and staking which tuberous begonias demand. It's not wonder why they were so sought after, they attention both while in display, and in culture. A collection and display of tuberous begonias meant that you could afford their couture style.

OK, so I admit that tuberous begonias - especially the Blackmore & Langdon strains, are a luxury. They were considered so in 1925, and they still are. The old named varieties which one sold for nearly 42 shillings  might be lost. The pure pink 'Hilda Langdon'; or the salmon colored Lord Lambourne' (1923) or even the 'Corientia (1929) but new standards continue to be introduced by the firm.

'Harlequin' with it's pink, picottee edge looks like candy when set agains this collage of tones.

You may be wondering why American breeders didn't take over, as California proved to be a terrific climate for raising these often challenging tubers, but the few hybridizes to attempted to take over after WW2 while having early success, eventually failed. American growers seemed to favor un-named varieties. In the early 20th century,  there were only a handful of breeders which included Frank Reinelt, the Brown Bulb Ranch (which eventually became the Golden State Bulb Growers)  and Ketterle & Reinelt all in California. These firms eventually either  closed their greenhouse doors or were bought out by larger businesses but the idea of a 'family run' business who actually breeds their own strains in the US is gone.

The most well known American grower was a family nursery in California was the firm known as  Antonelli Bros. They recently closed, with their holding and stock sold to a large commercial grower CalBegonias, who also bought out Golden State Bulb Growers. A fascinating details post from one of the original breeders from Golden State Bulb Growers can be found here.   The photos alone at this site should make your visit worth while.

A Ivory-yellow picottee variety.

CalBegonia may be a rather crappy corporate name, it does speak to the practical aspects of plant breeding today and the economies of raising bulbs and tubers for a global market. Gone are the days of back yard breeders, I get that, and although we can romanticize the independent breeder pollinating flowers every day with a paintbrush, sheet of glass and score cards evaluating crosses, the truth is, few have the luxury to actually do this. Although I have to admit that these begonias may be like buying a dress at Macy's, while a begonia from Blackmore & Langdon is clearly like buying directly a couture Valentino from his flagship store in Rome. For those who care and know, there IS a difference, however you choose to measure or value it.

CalBegonia claims today to be the largest grower of tuberous begonias, and their selection looks impressive enough, but I can't agree that they offer the appeal of more choiceful forms found at a specialist breeder like Blackmore & Langdon. I like knowing the family tree and varietal pedigree of my 'Sugar Candy' or my 'Ballerina'. Cost certainly factors in here, and we all can understand the obvious benefits of the mass market wanting perfectly fine tubers of Californian varieties which sell for $5.00 to $10.00 at Lowes or Home Depot in polybags. We can't be a snob about every plant we choose to grow. But I still want a few choice varieties in my collection as well.

Named varieties will always be more expensive. Factors like speed-to-market, propagation rate (some varieties are notoriously slow to propagate) and the fact that 'sufficient stock' which may have been 300 tubers in 1969, may be 100,000 in today's market. Those varieties which meet all of those criteria will rise to the top of the wholesale growers list. So while a fragrant, 8 inch flowered form with 10 stems which are sturdy and tall may seem irresistible, the fact that one tuber may cost you $70 might cause you to opt for an un-named seedling from California which comes close, but which doesn't have a name, has 5 inch flowers, and no scent.

There is just something 'summer-vacationy' about tuberous begonias. Take cotton candy, saltwater taffy and ice cream, and mix the colors all up, and you basically have the color palette.

If you are interested in raising tuberous begonias, a few words of advice.  First, you can grow either seed raised tubers which are un-named, or those which have some provenance. You probably know where I stand, I prefer good heritage when it comes to plants, and with hybrids in particular or strains. The Dutch have bred tuberous begonias which are fine, and will perform well in pots and in beds, but there is something special about the few named Blackmore & Langdon strains - once one sees them in person, the difference is obvious. Stronger stems, larger flowers, and tubers which can get larger and larger with each year. All that said, many Californian varieties are perfectly lovely, some with reverse picottee blooms, and others with colors just as tempting as the B & L strains. You can make up your own mind.

Expensive? Indeed. White Flower Farm carries both un-named and named forms, and prices will range from around $10 to over $100 per tuber. You can also order direct from Blackmore & Langdon, but the shipping cost may outweigh the cost difference, unless you purchase many. I have ordered both, and come one - you haven't paid $65 for a single plant before? Just be sure that you save the tuber from year to year.

In the old days, tubers were lifted with stumps (the tops cut off a few inches above the tuber) in the autumn. Tubers will produce flowers until frost (they will look their best in August), but once frost blackens the foliage, they should be lifted from the garden beds, with enough soil and the root ball and set into a flat, linking up all of ones tubers with the soil intact, and tops cut down to stumps, for setting into a cool, frost free space like a cellar (here in New England) or  perhaps a freeze proof, cold garage. This may be the greatest challenge for those with newer homes, but around here, we have plenty of frost free cold spaces. I set mine under a bench in the greenhouse. For tubers raised in pots - I leave them in the pots, allowing them to go dry, and cutting the stems off to about 1 inch.

Tubers stored in this way, can be cleaned off in late January, removing dried growth, roots and soil, and essentially, preparing the tuber for a clean pot with new soil - be watchful for new growth, which may appear as pink nubbins on the concave portion of the tuber, or on the side which didn't produce roots.

If you do visit White Flower Farm, and don't want to pay the higher prices for mature tubers, they offer smaller plants, as well as un-named varieties and some Californian strains for considerably less money. You can also bribe some cuttings from a friend in early July!

Starting tubers in late winter under lights indoors is best, for they appreciate warmth and light. Throughout their entire growing season, the greatest risk comes from pots drying out. Most will require daily watering, some even twice a day. It may be helpful to know that these are begonias which don't demand heat however, as the ideal daytime temperature will be around 65 degrees F, which explains why they do so well in England and coastal climates. However, in North America, temperatures in the summer can reach well over 90 degrees F. which is acceptable, but obviously they will need special care. Judging from the greenhouse here at White Flower Farm, hot temperatures don't seem to bother well tended to plants.

This 'Sugar Candy' is a Blackmore & Langdon' named selection from the 1960's. It looks terrific on our outdoor table this summer, but I bring in onto the porch on rainy days to keep the blossoms fresh and dry.

Staking is essential, and even though B&L sells special stakes on their website, most growers use stout, yet short, bamboo canes and soft twine. The stems will become strong and heavy with water weight (like celery or a dahlia stem), so they can easily snap in a wind storm, or become top heavy when the pot runs dry. Clay pots then, are in order. A large pot, 9 - 12 inches is best, and if you are serious about keeping them through the winter (yes, you can and should), you will be grateful for the single-tuber in a clay pot method. It's best not to pot Tuberous Begonia with other plants, in my opinion.

Since you may have invested a full day's salary into a single plant, you will want to save the tuber from year to year - some of the tubers in the collection at White Flower Farm are more then 10 years old, and larger than 7 inches in diameter. Saving tubers also may help you feel better about spending $65 for a large, fragrant B&L tuber as well.

Blackmore & Langdon's UK website is here.

White Flower Farm Blackmore & Langon begonia page in the US is here.


  1. Definitely going to White Flowers Farms this summer. I buy a few of their lower cost tubers every year. Unstoppable White is one of my faves. Has really lovely pinkish tone and darker leaves. Thanks, Matt!

  2. Hi, i've been reading and back reading your blog for a couple of weeks. I've taken over my mother's and grand father's garden after they passed away and I'm so glad you covered tuberous begonias in your blog. They're beautiful! Those, african violets and my mom's orchid collection (in sorry states) are what got me gardening. They might look old fashion to you but they look new and unique where I live. Unique because I haven't found a single specimen of tuberous begonias here (Philippines). I don't even know if they can grow here. I guess i'll just have to see pictures on your blog while hoping thay some sensible plant grower imports and breeds them here. We need tuberous begonias in this country!

    Anyway, thank you! I love your blog! It makes me feel not so crazy about my compulsive need to be somehow scientific in my gardening approach. A leave from my job well spent!

    1. Wow, thanks for the note all the way from the Philippines! We always want to garden in a climate where we are not typically gardening in already. Right?

  3. Very Very beautiful flowers. They grown by you?

  4. Hi Matt, you are a man after my own heart! I love the older style of gardening and big, beautiful, colourful flowers. We are just into spring in Sydney, and I have planted half a dozen tuberous begonias in my little glasshouse, along with many orchids, fuchsias and anthurium. I shall be going through all you lovely posts and enjoying the colour and information, best regards, Bradley.


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