Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Einstein's Begonia


A very nice little horticultural adventure began for me this past winter when I received a surprise email with an inquiring title: "Einstein's begonia?" The email was from my friend Kim Dorman who works at the Princeton Public Library. It was part flattery, part mystery, part challenge, like the beginning of a Mission Impossible episode. "Of all the people I know," it began, "you would be the most likely to have an answer to this question." Kim's sister's godmother was seeking a descendent of Einstein's begonia, and had also put word out to the Mercer County master gardeners and both garden clubs in Princeton.

A google search yielded an engaging and informative article by "Jeni", a Williams and Mary student at the time. She tells the story of Newton's apple tree, which still exists, and Einstein's begonia, which also lives on thanks to a proliferation of cuttings that took place after Einstein passed. According to Jeni, "Cuttings from the begonias raised by Einstein had been given as gifts before, mainly to physics or mathematics faculty at Princeton University or at the Institute for Advanced Study, but now they are also being circulated among a group residing in Princeton outside of the faculty."

A photo in the post showed a begonia owned by Jeni's grandparents, one of whom I happened to have served with on the Princeton Environmental Commission some years back. I contacted her, and she gladly shared cuttings of the begonia, describing them as "prolific." And so it is that Einstein's begonia traveled a multi-generational pathway to a new owner. 

Vicki's gift of cuttings was generous in number, and being an intrigued middleman, I kept a couple to see if I could get them to root. Online instructions suggested using a narrow container that could be filled with a minimum of water, the better to concentrate rooting compounds the plant naturally exudes. I chose a narrow glass, stuck the stems in, and waited. Weeks went by with no apparent action on the plants' part. The danger was that the stems would begin to rot. If you think about it, all a root has to do is lose one "o" and it turns into rot. The situation was clearly precarious, and I was worried not only for my own non root-budding begonias but also those I had passed along to Marianne, Kim's sister's godmother. As a precaution, I put one in perlite, to see if it would root that way.

It turned out that time brought roots rather than rot, regardless of the medium. I potted them up, kept them well lit but out of direct sun, and then one day, I noticed a flower emerging. Just a few leaves, and already a flower! I would have been impressed if the flower stayed that size, but instead what looked like one flower began to grow into many, 

until it had become a lovely spread. Clearly, Einstein was onto something. I like to think that this begonia's opulence and long-lasting blooms are reflective of Einstein's generosity of spirit, as well as the abundance of hair he grew in later years.

Another post that came up in an internet search, "Albert Einstein and Plants," offers some more background and claims, perhaps half correctly, that Einstein's begonia is "a Begonia ‘Lucerna‘; apparently a hybrid of Begonia teuscheri and Begonia coccinea."

A little more digging reveals that this plant is as international as Einstein himself. 


The Angel Wing Begonia, named for the shape of its leaves, was created by Eva Kenworthy Gray in 1926 when she hybridized a begonia from Lucerne, Switzerland and one from Brazil. Born in Missouri in 1863, Eva received a university education in an era when that was rare. It's not clear whether she went to University of Missouri, which began admitting women on a very limited basis in 1868, or perhaps the University of Iowa, Oswald Veblen's alma mater, which was coeducational from the get go in 1848. In any case, her considerable contributions to horticulture and begonias in particular happened after she became an immigrant of sorts, moving from the midwest to California, where she became hooked on begonias in 1920, after being given a couple cuttings. 

This is a recurring theme, in my life and in the lives of many people I know--the stimulus and serendipity of intranational migration, where skills and values learned in one place find new application and relevance when transported to another region of the country. Some of the values and motivations that made Oswald Veblen so impactful in Princeton can be traced not only to a youth spent in the midwest but extend back, as described in George Dyson's book Turings Cathedral, to the circumstances and culture his grandparents experienced in Norway. 

For info on the Angel-wing Begonia and its care and feeding, the Chicago Botanic Garden offers a lovely account. The plaster cast of Einstein's face in the first photo of this post, by the way, was given to us by Lavonne Heydel, who is a volunteer gardener at Drumthwacket, Morven, and most recently at Herrontown Woods. It had been part of an "Einstein garden" she and her offspring had for awhile. For the meantime, the plaster likeness now has a new home in a different sort of Einstein garden, among the begonias on my windowsill.

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