Begonias Part III – how the Begonia got its name
Published on: Monday, May 25, 2015
By: Anthea Phillips
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AS we saw last week, Borneo and Sabah are full of wild Begonias but where does the name come from? This story is about the men behind the plant – the origin of the name ‘Begonia’. Michel Begon

Begonias are named after a Frenchman, Michel Begon, the administrator of the historic naval port of Rochefort, on France’s Atlantic coast, from 1688 to 1710, during the reign of King Louis XIV.

Rochefort was France’s main sea-port – the port from which French ships set out in search of gold and new lands, as well as to defend King Louis’s realm and France’s commercial interests. It was also a time when, despite wars, conflicts, and pirates, the interest in new, exotic plants, particularly those with economic potential, was expanding.

France’s King Louis was just as interested in the economical opportunities presented by these new plants, as he was in growing beautiful plants in his parks and gardens.

It was he, (or rather his garden designer), who created the intricate gardens and immense parks of the magnificent palace of Versailles where the king spent as much time as he could.

The Cinchona tree, the source of quinine, an almost magical cure for malaria, had recently been discovered, and had fired the imaginations of the nations of Europe, so King Louis did not need much persuading to agree to financing a plant-collecting voyage to the French possessions in the Caribbean islands, off the coast of South America, and to instructing his naval administrator at Rochefort, Michel Begon, to organize it.

Charles Plumier

Begon appointed the physician and botanist, Joseph Surian, to head the expedition and Surian invited the botanist monk, Father Charles Plumier, a student of the famous French botanist, Joseph Tournefort, to accompany him.

Begon himself had been a senior administrator on the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo, (now Haiti), from 1682 to 1685, before he moved to Rochefort, (and it was at Rochefort that he met Plumier, not in the Caribbean, as is stated on several internet sites).

His correspondence shows that he took a lively interest in Plumier’s work and the two men would almost certainly have discussed the region and where it would be best to go plant-hunting.

Caribbean Voyages

Plumier’s first Caribbean voyage, to Martinique and Santo Domingo or Haiti, (not to be confused with the current Dominican Republic!), was from 1689 to 1690, and resulted in the discovery of the Begonia, (Begonia obliqua), which Plumier named in honour of Begon, who had been so instrumental in organizing the voyage and helping the monk.

This name was published by Plumier’s mentor, Joseph Tournefort, in 1700, and adopted by the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus in 1753, in his list of plant genera, and so the name ‘Begonia’ was born.

Plumier himself is remembered in the lovely shrubby Plumeria or Frangipani, with its multi-coloured, scented flowers, also native to the Caribbean area, (see Wonders of Borneo, May 6th, 2012).

The success of the first voyage led to Plumier being designated the “King’s Botanist”, and to a second voyage in 1693, again to Haiti, where Plumier spent six months gathering almost 1000 new species of plants!

A third voyage followed in 1695 and a fourth was started in 1704, which, according to Roy Mottram in, “Charles Plumier, the King’s Botanist - his life and work”, “was to have been to Peru, to search for the cinchona tree itself that yielded the miraculous powder quinine”, when Plumier passed away at the age of 58, bringing to an end his illustrious career.

The First Naval Botanical Garden

Begon was obviously impressed with all the new discoveries, and was interested in their potential, for in 1697, he started the first naval botanic garden in Rochefort, to look after “curious, useful and pleasant plants”, and to acclimatize them before sending them on to Paris or Versailles.

Although this garden did not last beyond Begon’s death in 1710, his memory has never been forgotten, for Begon transformed the small wooden port of Rochefort into a major maritime centre with wide, straight streets, proper sanitation and health care and buildings of stone. The epitaph on his gravestone reads, “Hanc nascentem urbem ligeam invenit, lapideam reliquit” “(He found a growing town in wood and left it in stone).”

More than two centuries later, in 1986, the city of Rochefort appropriately acquired the Begonia collection of the celebrated French grower and breeder Vincent Millerioux, which at the time contained about 200 species and varieties of Begonia and which is now housed in the “Conservatory of Begonias”, set up in memory of Michel Begon.

Conservatory of Begonias

Patrick Rose, a former Director of the Conservatory, in 1998, described the Conservatory as, “not a general collection of begonias but rather safeguards and studies the less known and forgotten begonias: African miniatures, South American giants, small yellow-flowered begonias from Gabon, thick-leafed begonias from Mexico, and genuine jewels from the Indo-Malaysian peninsula. The Conservatory houses the largest begonia collection in Europe, they are constantly searching for new species, particularly, to add to their collection. Famous horticulturists and botanists from around the world come to Rochefort to the Conservatory to study and discover Begonias”. (translated from the French by Samuelle Wagner).

So that is the rather long and involved story of one of the most popular houseplants in the world. You will never look at the humble begonia with same eyes again!

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