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Hand Me Down My Bloomin’ Plants or Getting a Piece of Begonia


Denise Conklin inherited her grandmother’s rhizomatous begonia. She named it “Lady L” after Kelton Parker, a renowned Australian begonia researcher, who discovered the type was unknown and so allowed her to name it.

Forty-five years ago, Lady L was passed down to Denise on her wedding day from her mother, who had received it the day she was married in 1918. For Conklin females, it’s tradition.

To this day, the plant lives on in Conklin’s south window – even through near death experiences in connection with fertilizer and vacations. Four years ago, fertilizer managed to wipe out all but four of its hundred or so leaves. Just last year, it went on to win Honorable Mention at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

“She’s going to be even more beautiful for next year’s show,” assures Conklin. How does she know? “I’m going to be an excellent momma to that plant. I have been known to kill a few now and then, but I’m trying to keep it nice and big and healthy.”

And just how does she do that? “Benign neglect.” She lets it dry then waters thoroughly and soon it’ll go out under the trees. “And I’m not going to fertilize it. That’s probably how I almost killed it last time. Begonias have a very fine hair-like root system and they’re sensitive to fertilizer. I know people who fertilize heavily but I’m not one who does and I get better results that way.”

Says the momma in Conklin: “That particular plant versus the ones you buy in the store has a personality. It brings back memories. There’s a memory of a relative in there. A plant like this – from a parent or relative or a friend – has all kinds of special memories and people tend to take better care of it. A plant is like a living memory.”

Lady L is a Victorian style begonia, similar to beefsteak begonias popular in the late 1800s. They are among the oldest begonias grown in the U.S. Victorians grew ferns, begonias, orchids and African violets.

Debbie Kendall has a beefsteak begonia that once belonged to THE Grace Kelly’s mother. “My Aunt Sophie lived next door to Margaret Kelly in an apartment in Germantown (a Philadelphia suburb). They were good friends. She gave her cuttings.”

Pieces of the big rhizomatous beefsteak begonia shared between those long ago friends filtered to sisters and down to nieces and daughter-in-law. Debbie, now 79, was in her 20s when she got her first piece from Sophie (also her Matron-of-Honor). It eventually died, but her cousin Barbara (Sophie’s daughter-in-law) gave her a new cutting of Mother Kelly’s begonia.

Today Kendall’s plant hangs in a clay pot in her kitchen window. She has stopped feeding it her favorite fertilizer – birth control pills – because she says she can’t get them anymore. Every now and then she feeds fish emulsion. Come summer, she’ll put them outdoors on a table and cover them when the sun comes out and let them dry a little.

Her begonia maintenance protocol is simple: remove flowers when it blooms in February and enjoy the leaves: “green and shiny, roundish and sometimes ruffled.” And when it gets to big or leggy she cuts off the rhizomes to make the plant even fuller. “These came from a very long time ago. You have to cut them back because they get leggy. I like them symmetrical.”

“This is a very prolific and healthy plant. You don’t have to be smart to grow this plant.”

Kendall offers hard-earned advice: don’t use Listerine on your begonias (for bugs). It’ll kill them, just like it did most of hers.

Conklin and Kendall treasure their heirloom begonias. They are members of the Delaware Valley Branch of American Begonia Society.

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published May 23, 2010

Photos to enlarge

Beefsteak begonia, Erythrophylla sp.

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