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Without Rochefort, we would not have begonias...

Historic naval port Rochefort in Charente-Maritime is not a native habitat for begonias, but there would be no begonias were it not for Rochefort, which now houses Europe’s most important collection of the genus.

Well, the plants would exist, of course – they would just be called something else.

The naval dockyard and town celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2016 and was created under Louis XIV and his finance minister Colbert, who saw the need for France to become a maritime power as the European nations developed trade with, and possessions in, the New World.

One of the administrators overseeing the development of Rochefort was Michel Bégon, its intendant from 1688 to 1710. Numerous expeditions to the New World, in particular the Caribbean, would set out from Rochefort during those years.

Having spent several years on the islands himself earlier in his career, Bégon had a keen interest in scientific discoveries made during expeditions there.
One of the many scientists on the many expeditions from Rochefort and sponsored by Bégon was the botanist-monk Charles Plumier.

Plumier not only recorded details of a number of plants previously unknown to Europeans, he was also the first person to make botanical dedications, by which a plant would be named in someone’s honour.
Among the best known of those he named are the fuchsia, named for the German botanist Leonhard von Fuchs; the magnolia, named for French botanist Pierre Magnol; and, you guessed it, the begonia named for Michel Bégon.

Bégon probably never saw a real begonia himself, unless he accidentally stepped on one during his years in the Caribbean.

Plumier brought back drawings rather than actual plants due to the difficulty of transporting them alive.

In fact, the first begonias did not arrive in Europe until nearly a full century later, when in 1777 some were brought to the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, starting a British love affair with the begonia long before the French.

Today, Plumier is largely forgotten, though he was eventually honoured with the genus plumeria, the Central and South American native plant more commonly called frangipani.

A world-class collection

Rochefort’s world-class collection began with the gift of an amateur begonia collector, Vincent Millerioux, to the town in 1986.
At the time, the town was creating a horticultural zone on its edge covering 100 acres, which would be leased in parcels to horticultural businesses.

Greenhouses of the Begonia Conservatory anchor the site.
Patrick Rose had previously worked with Mr Millerioux for his private collection and was the natural choice as the town sought someone to organise and then oversee the conservatory. Mr Rose remains at the head of the conservatory and is a recognised world specialist on the begonia genus.

From Mr Millerioux’s original collection of 250 species of begonia, the conservatory greenhouses now hold nearly 600 species from nature and 1,000 more hybrids, created from 1845 to the present.
Labelled as one of France’s “national collections”, this is considered the most important begonia collection in Europe and the conservatory has many plants that have grown to a size that visitors will not often see
in botanical gardens.

No matter the time of year, vistors will be sure to see some plants in flower, but Mr Rose says that the interest of the collection is the diversity and particularly the diversity of the leaves, rather than whether or not they are in flower.

Despite the floral consonance of his own name, he says he is more interested in the diversity of leaves within the genus rather than flowers – and is especially fond of the freshness of the vegetation now, as the days are getting longer.

Visiting the conservatory

The Conservatoire du Bégonia can be visited from February through to November on regularly scheduled guided tours. Its gardeners are themselves guides and tours are accessible to the casual visitor while also being informative for the begonia-lover.

The visit is conducted in French, while non-French-speakers can use an explanatory brochure in English. Nevertheless, groups are often small enough that the gardener-guide, if he speaks adequate English, will be more than willing to answer the questions of non-French visitors.

Groups should call and ask to have one of the more fluent English-speaking gardeners as their guide.
See www.begonia.rochefort.fr for visitor details

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