Fragrant begonias have come a long way since the first fragrant species were introduced to cultivation.
In 1886 Dr. Sacc discovered a tuberous begonia in the high Andes near Cochabamba, Bolivia and described the flowers as having a strong, primrose-like fragrance. He sent seeds to E.N. Baumann, of Baumann nurseries, the oldest nursery in France, founded in 1624. Victor Lemoine later bought Baumann’s whole stock of fragrant begonias; he then described and named it Begonia baumannii in honour of his mentor in horticulture. Lemoine introduced it in 1890, as well as B. fulgens, another tuberous species with a light tea rose fragrance. He started actively hybridising B. baumannii and B. fulgens with other tuberous begonias. By 1901, Lemoine was already offering various fragrant begonias as well as the original B. baumannii and B. fulgens in his catalogue. ‘Tiges de Fer Odorants’ was an erect type with single, upward-facing flowers available in pink, red and white, B. ‘pearcei-baumannii’ had salmon fragrant flowers and B. ‘Odoratissima Alba Plena’, B. ‘Odoratissima Rosea Plena’ & B. ‘Odoratissima Purpurea Plena’, respectively had double white, rose or red flowers and were described as having a heady, tea rose scent.
Much later, in the 1950s, another notable hybridiser tried developing fragrant begonias: Leslie Woodriff, of the ‘Stargazer’ lily fame. He may have used some of the remaining varieties developed by Lemoine as well as B. baumannii. His most famous introductions include B. ‘Patty Sweet’ & ‘Yellow Sweety’. Woodriff also worked with other scented species like B. minor and B. solananthera to develop his B. ‘Tea Rose’ and B. ‘Splotches’.
Most of today’s fragrant tuberous begonias probably derive from ‘Yellow Sweety’ and further back from B. baumannii.
In 2005 Thompson & Morgan released begonia ‘Aromantics’, a series of fragrant begonias developed by the Belgian breeder Arnold van Peteghem. While the fragrance was very pleasing, it was sometimes elusive and the colour range was limited. The plants also tended to be upright and more suited for containers.
We wanted to create fragrant begonias suited to hanging baskets and started a large begonia breeding program in 2006, crossing an array of unscented cascading double begonias in a range of colours with the very best fragrant begonias we could find. Then we selected on for several generations, making sure not to lose the scent in the process. This means sniffing every single seedling among the thousands we grow every season!
We also selected for the most trailing habit with high branching in order to get a very floriferous plant. Along the way, we realised the scent intensity seemed to increase with the amount of petals, so we chose only plants with the most double flowers.
From 2009 we started multiplying the very best candidate varieties by cuttings and checked they were free of viruses & bacteria. Each variety was then further tested for at least 2 years for garden performance, resistance to sun & rain and consistence of fragrance. At the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2011 we introduced ‘Fragrant Falls Apricot’, the first fragrant begonia with the same colour as our best-selling ‘Apricot Shades’. While the fragrance and quartered double flowers likened B. ‘Fragrant Falls Apricot’ to English roses, unfortunately it proved to yield too few cuttings to make it viable commercially. The remaining candidate varieties were tested further, specifically on their ease to reproduce from cuttings.
Seven years after starting the breeding program, we are now able to release the very best trailing fragrant begonias, ‘Fragrant Falls Improved’. There are currently three colours: ‘Apricot Delight’ has very double, two tone, light apricot flowers with a rose fragrance; ‘Lemon Fizz’ bears rosebud shaped blooms with a sharp citrus scent and the perfect double light pink picotee flowers of ‘Rose Syllabub’ pervade the air with rose fragrance. The light colours blend very well in a basket and bloom all summer long in sun or shade, regardless of the unpredictable British weather.
Fragrance is a very personal experience, and you can have fun picking up flowers and find out what they evoke for you. As you get so many blooms over the course of the summer, you can also try cutting some flowers to float in a bowl indoors; they are perfect for a fragrant and original table decoration! Don’t forget that you can collect tubers at the end of the season, keep them dry & frost-free over winter and start them into growth again in early February. This way you’ll enjoy your fragrant begonias year after year.