Friday, April 15, 2022

The Origin Story of the Einstein Begonia

An unexpected vein of Veblen-related research began with an email from a friend at the Princeton Public Library asking me to assist in finding a descendent of Einstein's begonia. Einstein had a begonia he was fond of, and after he died his secretary gave cuttings to physicist friends in Princeton. With a little help from the internet, I was able to learn the story of how cuttings from Einstein's begonia have lived on long after his passing in 1955. A friend also gave me some cuttings, two of which I passed on to people involved in creating an Einstein museum in Princeton. 

I thought I was done with my work until a Canadian film director named Charlie Tyrell contacted me. He's making a movie called "Show Me the Past is Real," exploring "the emotional power that objects have over us personally and collectively," and would like to find the actual plant--the "mother plant"--that Einstein himself owned. (One of the creative and moving documentaries that Charlie has done, by the way, is called Broken Orchestra, about a citizen movement to get Philadelphia to restore funding for music in the schools. Watching it is eleven minutes well spent.)

The search for the "mother plant" led me back to my friend Vicki who had supplied me with cuttings, to see if she knew the progression of owners through whom her plants had come. She said she'd contact her source. 

For a long time, I heard nothing, and then came an email out of the blue from Norma Smith. 

Dear Steve,

My husband and I were walking in the Herrontown Woods near the Veblen house and met you last year, I believe. 
My husband AJStewart Smith (83) is a retired professor from the physics department at Princeton University. I was and remain friends with many of the retired physics faculty members and their spouses. The story of the Einstein begonia is as follows: 
Mrs. Joan (pronounced Joann) Treiman, the wife of Sam Treiman, a theorist who was a young physics faculty member when Einstein was alive, got a cutting of the Einstein begonia from Einstein’s secretary, Helen Dukas. Joan Treiman gave a cutting to another faculty member’s wife, Eunice Wilkinson. Eunice Wilkinson gave me a cutting and I and my husband (a true gardener) thought the plant was so special that we made many cuttings and started to give cuttings to people who seemed as enthusiastic about the plant as we were. I gave the cutting to Vicky Bergman who was in my aerobics group at the Senior Center, and somewhere over the years we heard even the horticultural department at the university started to call it the “Einstein Begonia”! Joan Treiman died in 2013 at age 87 and I am quite sure she no longer had the plant when she died. Eunice Wilkinson now lives in a retirement center in Boulder, Colorado and no longer has a plant to my knowledge. 
We were thrilled to hear what you are doing re Oswald Veblen’s home and the land he donated. My parents were immigrants from Norway and I knew Veblen had Norwegian ancestry so was always interested in stories about him. His uncle Thorstein Veblen had a summer hut on Washington Island, in Door County, Wisconsin; our daughter-in-law’s family lives in Door County and our son and family have a home there so we have made several trips to Washington Island and have read stories about Thorstein’s presence on the island, interesting to look up on google if you don’t already know about them. 
Good luck with the wonderful work you are undertaking. 
Best wishes, Norma Smith
It was astonishing to hear the whole lineage laid out. Historical research usually involves piecing together bits and pieces from multiple sources over time. Another friend's source for Einstein begonias, Martha Otis, contacted me with essentially the same news: the "motherplant is long gone - only cuttings from cuttings from cuttings etc on and on exist." 

Thanks to Vicki, Teresa, Martha, and especially Norma for helping trace the lineage of the Einstein begonia back to Einstein himself. 


  1. I am writing a musical/concept album about the begonia's story and would love to get in contact with anyone who received an original cutting or knows more about the begonia's beginnings. I got a cutting from an elderly relative who has been keeping his Einstein begonia alive for decades. His memories on how he came by it are hazy, and I'm trying to retrace his steps.

  2. If you're on a computer you should be able to see my contact info to the right of the post under "About Me". Send me an email. I'm not clear on what you're looking for beyond what's in the post.

  3. I have had one for 30 years and did not know any of these stories until a friend here in Princeton saw the plant in the background of a photo I posted on FB.

    1. Not all angel wing begonias originated with Einstein. Do you remember how you got it?

  4. A friend who is on the faculty at Princeton asked me to tend to her small Einstein Begonia while her Brooklyn apartment was getting renovated. It was a few inches tall, residing in a 6" pot. I agreed.

    But the apartment renovation remains incomplete after 2 1/2 years. The plant thrived in my Sun-filled home, growing to be a 4 ' tall bush. A large arm of the bush broke off during repotting -- I put it in a vase of water, as one might display flowers.

    Within a few days that begonia "arm" was putting out roots, so I simply stuck it in another pot of soil, and gave it plenty of water.

    Today I have two Einstein Begonias -- both more than 6 feet tall, flowering generously, and showing no signs of slowing down. I hope my friend's apartment renovation is soon completed, as the plants will soon exceed the size of her entry door.

    I think an Einsteinian black hole is needed, to swallow the monsters down to size. Alternatively, if I race about my home at high speed, perhaps the plants will disappear from view, as did time for Einstein on his infamous train ride. If Kip Thorne were still around, I'm sure he'd have wisdom to impart.

  5. A delight to hear Laurie Garrett's story, and discover her stellar career in journalism.

    I have yet to figure out why Einstein begonias sometimes grow compactly, sometimes tall and lanky. Clearly their enthusiasm has had a lot to do with their staying power and ongoing spread from household to household.