That Won’t Grow Here

Begonia U-521 is a species we got from a customer in Alabama, which has sailed through our winters at JLBG since 2017. Flowering begins for us in early fall, with clusters of large pure white flowers, which hide just below the leaves. For those unfamiliar with Begonia U-numbers, these are assigned by he American Begonia Society for plants new to cultivation that represent potential new species.

This amazing begonia was purchased by begoniaphiles Charles Jaros and Maxine Zinman from the Bangkok Market in Thailand. For those who haven’t visited this amazing marketplace, it’s a massive venue where local vendors (nurserymen and collectors) sell their wares.

It turns out that this species came from the wild via a collector who lives on the border of Thailand and Cambodia, where no plants should be winter hardy here in Zone 7b. We’re not aware of anyone currently working on naming new begonias from that region, so to offer it, we’ll need to assign a cultivar name, which will remain connected to the plant, once it becomes a published species.

Begonia sp. nov. U-521 foliage in the fall garden.
Begonia sp. nov. U-521
Begonia sp. nov. U-521 white flowers hidden just below the foliage.
Begonia sp. nov. U-521

A new hardy yellow-flowered Begonia from Arunachal Pradesh

History is replete with examples of new plant species that are first encountered by intrepid plant explorers, yet described later by taxonomists. Salvia darcyi was discovered and introduced into cultivation by Carl Schoenfeld and John Fairey of Yucca Do Nursery. Three years later, they guided researchers to the site who subsequently described the species without acknowledging the original collector. It is unfortunate that the act of discovery by those in horticultural circles are so seldomly recognized (not to mention the indigenous peoples who have known many of them for eons).

Upon my first visit to Heronswood in the autumn of 2019 I was shown a splendid robust Begonia with heavily lobed leaves, short upright stems, and amazing tight-clumping habit with yellow (yes yellow!) flowers. I immediately confirmed that this was a heretofore undescribed species. The plants had been grown from the seed collection made by Dan Hinkley along with fellow collectors and nurseryman, Shayne Chandler and Leonard Foltz, from Arunachal Pradesh India. These plants were shared by Mr. Hinkley with Monrovia who immediately released it under the name TectonicTM Eruption Begonia (Begonia sp. DJH18072).

The unknown Begonia has now been given a formal scientific name Begonia lorentzonii by Swedish taxonomist Eric Wahsteen and the Indian researcher Dipankar Borah, based on two specimens collected by Borah in November of 2018 (incidentally, after Dan Hinkley’s collection). No mention of the plant in cultivation or the contribution of Dan is found in the publication despite the fact that quite a few of the Begonia aficionado crowd around the globe had by then become familiar with the plant. Regardless of the name, this species is among the most spectacular hardy garden plants for cool but not cold climates.

Begonia lorentzonii at Heronswood
Begonia lorentzonii
Begonia lorentzonii starting to bloom
                Begonia lorentzonii

Begonia lorentzonii has proven hardy at Heronswood (zone 8a) where it was left outside with only a covering of leaves and straw in temperatures ranging into the low teens and at least a week long stretch of consistently below freezing temperatures which resulted in ground freeze. It forms 2-2.5’ tall dense clumps with one of the best forms I’ve seen in a cold hardy species.

In late summer through late autumn it is adorned with yellow flowers beset with hairlike projections on the outer surface of the tepals produced on stems that equal or are slightly shorter than the leaves. Begonia lovers should visit the Renaissance Garden at Heronswood to see mature plants in their full glory and a pilgrimage to Heronswood is a must for all hardy Begonia lovers as the collection of rare and unusual cold hardy species is probably the best among our public gardens. While this startling plant appears to be perfectly adapted to life in the mild Pacific Northwest it remains to be seen what its tolerance for heat will be. It was an honor and pleasure to grow and nurture these plants during my time at Heronswood and I must admit my heart and mind will forever be drawn to that sacred space of ground whenever I glimpse a Begonia of any species.

Dr. Patrick McMillan

Angel Wing

Looking good in the garden now is Begonia taiwaniana ‘Alishan Angel’, which is our 2008 collection from 6,500′ elevation in Taiwan’s Yushan Province. This specimen has now been in the ground since 2010, and is thriving in a fairly dry woodland location. We introduced this selection in 2020 and will be offering it again in 2023. Hardiness is Zone 7b-9b at least.

Begonia taiwaniana 'Alishan Angel' thriving in a woodland garden
Begonia taiwaniana ‘Alishan Angel’

An Exciting New Expedition

Please join me in welcoming our newest JLBG team member, Dr. Patrick McMillan. I’ve known Patrick for 30 years, going back to his days as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, and long before he became a legend in the plant world.

We’ve followed his amazing journey, most recently as Director of Heronswood Gardens in Washington. Prior to that, he was Director of the SC Botanical Garden and Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson since 2000. Patrick was the Emmy Award winning host of the renown PBS series, Expeditions with Patrick McMillan. Patrick is a highly-respected botanist/naturalist, who has won far too many awards to mention, but we’ll let Patrick tell you a bit more about himself and why he decided to partner with JLBG.

My first experience with Juniper Level and Tony was sitting at the kitchen table in 1991, the inaugural year of Plant Delights Nursery, talking about Asarum and star-struck by Tony’s knowledge and passion that has continued to grow into one of the world’s premier gardens and nurseries. In those days I dreamed of the opportunity to work alongside such talented horticulturalists and intrepid explorers.

My love of plants and all things slithering, creeping, crawling, and flying came at a very early age. I can’t remember a time when my life wasn’t centered on them. Fast forward 31 years and I found myself sitting at the same table reminiscing about the past, marveling at how far JLBG has grown, and stirring excitement for the future. I am so enthusiastic about joining the staff at JLBG, learning from the lifetimes of incredible knowledge and skill that is assembled among the employees and sharing my own experience, passion, and knowledge to bolster the mission and the horticultural and conservation accomplishments of this magical place.

I’m probably best described as a plant nerd. I have never met a plant I didn’t love. Every plant has a story and each is connected to our lives and the lives of the biodiversity upon which we all depend. Much of my horticultural experience and focus in South Carolina and at Heronswood Garden in Kingston, Washington has been focused on generating and supporting insect, bird and other wildlife diversity in the home landscape.

My philosophy of natural community gardening and the generation of life is a fairly simple one based on filling every space with life – diversity generates diversity. My exploration of the plant world has taken me from pole to pole and over every continent except Australia. I was trained as a sedge taxonomist but my interests include anything with cells. I’ve described new species ranging from ragweeds to sedges and begonia.

I also believe strongly that our greatest gift is sharing knowledge and I have worked as a lifelong educator. You may also have seen me on your local PBS station, where for 15 years I wrote, hosted, and produced the series “Expeditions with Patrick McMillan” – distributed by American Public Television. Conservation, preservation and generation of life is at the core of my life’s mission and I can imagine no better place to be nested within than JLBG. I hope to meet you soon and share some hearty plant nerd conversation.

Thursday Morning Podcast

Nature provides beauty and interest in the garden year round. Not just from it’s floral displays, but often the seed pods are as interesting. Here are some seed pods from the garden this week.