PLANT OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Common names: ‘Lucerna’ Begonia, ‘Corallina de Lucerna’ Begonia
Scientific name: Begonia ‘Lucerna’
Explanation of scientific name:
Begonia – Named in honor of Michel Begon, 1638-1710. He was a French promoter of botany and one time official superintendent of Santo Domingo (Haiti).
‘Lucerna’ – Latin for “lamp”,
perhaps in reference to the shiny, spotted foliage of this begonia cultivar.
There are over 1,000 species of Begonia and over 10,000 recorded hybrids and cultivars of this genus of plants. They are naturally found throughout the tropics and subtropics of the southern and northern hemispheres. ‘Lucerna’ is one of those hybrids, probably resulting from a cross long ago between Begonia teuscheri and Begonia coccinea. It is a fairly common in cultivation, and untold thousands are grown as garden perennials in warm climates and as houseplants in cooler regions.
What makes this specimen unique is its connection to one of the world’s most famous scientists, Albert Einstein. His connection to this plant, as related to me by Professor Jessica Sand of Union County College’s Biology Department, is as follows:
Einstein spent the last years of his life in Princeton, NJ, where he grew this begonia as a houseplant. After his death in 1955, his relatives kept the plant in the family. Decades later, in 2002, Wendy Wilkinson Gordon acquired the plant at the time of her father’s death. Her father, David Todd Wilkinson, was a renowned astrophysicist at Princeton University. Although he was not a contemporary of Einstein, their similar interests and their Princeton connection prompted Einstein’s relatives to give the plant to the Wilkinson family as a symbolic gesture. A cutting of the plant was given to Professor Sand’s daughter-in-law who in turn gave it to Sand’s grandchildren, Noah and Ezra Lee of Cranford, NJ. The boys lovingly and skillfully grew the plant to a size that allowed for cuttings to be propagated from it at Union County College in 2009. Several of these plants now grow in the College’s greenhouses.
Can Einstein’s Begonia be perpetuated indefinitely? Absolutely! Begonias readily propagate by cuttings, producing exact copies (clones) of the original plant. So, the plant on display is genetically identical to the one grown by Einstein over half a century ago.
The cultivar ‘Lucerne’ can trace its ancestry back to Brazil, the home of many begonia species. It is known as a type of “angel-wing” begonia in reference to the shape of its foliage. ‘Lucerna’s smooth, silver/white-spotted leaves with their red undersides are especially attractive. The flowers borne by ‘Lucerna,’ like all begonias, are monoecious. This means separate male and female flowers are produced by each plant. In nature this increases the probability of cross pollination as insects carry pollen from one plant to another. The flowers are quite showy and long-lasting. Their brilliant, coral-red, drooping clusters are eye-catching against the background of its foliage. ‘Lucerna’s characteristics appear in other begonia hybrids too. When crossed with other begonias it produced what are known today as the Superba Hybrids.