Begonias: Just Scratching The Surface
Begonia breeders like Benary’s Doug Holden have wild imaginations and an assortment of new variety ideas they’d like to introduce to the industry. The challenge, however, is the number of roadblocks standing in the begonia breeder’s way.
“The fundamental challenge with begonia is not number of species or ideas. It is overcoming fertility barriers, ease of growing and shipping product,” Holden says. “It is a relatively long crop time and difficult to ship finished plants to market versus other genera.”
Holden, who received a master’s degree in breeding from the University of Connecticut, has had a keen eye on begonias for 25 years. When Holden first entered the industry, begonia breeding centered around Europe and Asia with companies like Benary and Daehnfelt (now Sakata). The breeder’s focus back then was mostly on semperflorens species, and varieties were primarily bred for field performance and with late flowering.
“Things began to change when plugs came in,” Holden says. “When plugs came in begonia seed was pelleted, but as a multi-pellet. Eventually, technology made a single pellet, which changed the economics of this crop for the breeder.”
More recently, breeders have been focused on developing vegetative begonia. Unfortunately, a number of the same challenges breeders have historically faced with vegetative species remain.
“The challenge with vegetative begonia is the development of productive stock plants that produce sufficient number of quality cuttings,” Holden says. “Begonias are difficult to propagate, and that’s been the biggest obstacle to there being a mainstream vegetative item. Shipping finished plants can also be a challenge due to breakage of stems or dropping of flowers.”
Martijn Kuiper, the commercial product manager for Beekenkamp Plants in the Netherlands, is familiar with the challenges Holden describes. For example, Kuiper believes breeders are just beginning to scratch the surface with Begonia boliviensis, which he admits are difficult to produce as unrooted cuttings.
“We believe we now know how,” says Kuiper, who intends to move to the United States to increase Beekenkamp’s footprint. “We see growing interest in our begonia ‘Waterfall Encanto’ and other hanging begonias in our Waterfall series. We will introduce new colors next year, including a red Encanto.”
Among the boliviensis varieties Beekenkamp produces is Suntory Flowers’ Crackling Fire, which was introduced at the recent European Flower Trials and will likely be introduced at the 2012 California Spring Trials.
“We see lots of opportunity for the Crackling Fire series,” says Shigeru Sarada, Suntory’s managing director. “Right now there has been less emphasis on breeding for shade plants than for sun, which has somewhat led to fractured series of plants and older varieties. This has left the consumer market hungry for new and improved plants for the shade.”
Breeders like Dömmen USA are also interested in exploring opportunities in boliviensis or other trailing types for hanging baskets, but Dömmen’s Paul Hammer says the species still presents several challenges.
“The main drawbacks are downward-facing flowers, smaller flowers and we find the flower drops quickly,” says Hammer, Dömmen’s research and development manager. “You don’t get much show. Those are some major obstacles to get over in the breeding. Right now, we’re looking for big flowers that are showy with a trailing habit.”
To Hammer, the begonia market is a relatively untapped one with great potential. Dömmen continues to focus on Rieger begonias, but its latest goal with the Rieger is to breed it for more sun and heat tolerance.
“The key is getting begonias that can take almost full sun,” Hammer says. “The Dragone series, for example, has dark leaves that tolerate more sun. It’s some of the newest breeding in the Rieger type. People like the contrast between the
flower color and that dark leaf.”
Hammer also believes vegetative begonias are picking up ground on the seed types. “Cuttings are a little shorter crop time than a seed and you get more flowers and upward-facing flowers,” he says. “The shipability and shelf life are exceptional, too.
Dömmen is also exploring ways to incorporate Rieger begonias into mixed containers. The company suggests partnering Riegers with plants like bacopa, torenia and fuchsia for a unique look.
“Begonias are a growing market and there’s plenty out there for breeders to make better plants,” Hammer says. “In the end, we’re looking to grow well in the heat and humidity, withstand more sun and add vigor to get them into mixed combinations. Bringing the pot plant into the garden is what we’ve been trying to do the last several years with the Rieger type.”
The Next Frontier
Yet another begonia species breeders are dabbling with is rex. ‘Gryphon’ got a lot of attention when PanAmerican Seed unveiled the large colorfully foliaged plant. This past spring Green Fuse took another step forward for the species with its Shadow King series featuring unique color patterns in Green Envy, Rothko and Strawberry Lime.
“I believe the work with rex types like you see at Green Fuse and in ‘Gryphon’ have great merit but are slow to catch on,” says Allan Armitage, a professor at the University of Georgia and a Greenhouse Grower contributor. “We are seeing a dozen wonderful forms with rex here at UGA, but all seem to be novelty forms.”
Armitage is another believer in the notion that breeders are just now scratching the surface in begonias, and he looks forward to the next varieties to come.
“I do think we’re just getting started with begonias, although some of the breeding in begonias has not proven to be as good as we had hoped,” he says. “For example, Bonfire was well accepted but all the others that have resulted have been disappointing in landscape performance.
“The Solenia and Nadine types have been quite good in the tuberous-like flower line, and the Bigs and Whoppers have also been excellent in the bedding line.”