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rows of red and green begonias in liners inside a greenhouse

Building better begonias

Begonias are among the top five most popular plants found in flower beds and Florida leads the way in production with sales valuing more than $11.8 million, according to the USDA. But heat waves and drought have hurt begonia production in the southeast U.S. and many varieties cannot withstand the high heat and humidity Florida summers bring.

The UF/IFAS Mid-Florida Research and Education Center houses one of the largest repositories of begonia plant materials in the country. Scientist Alfred Huo is on a mission to find a begonia that can withstand the pressures of a changing climate thanks to a joint grant of $175,000 from USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Heat and humidity are the two major factors that put stress on begonias. Even if growers use shade and electric cooling to combat heat stress, the plant’s stress response to heat limits its marketability in the landscape.

“Growers have tools to help keep their plants cool when in production, but the high energy cost results in less profitability and decreased competitiveness for Florida growers,” said Huo.

Huo is hopeful the newly established varieties will not only be hardier but also allow growers to significantly reduce the use of fungicide and water for production, minimizing environmental impacts and maximizing profits.

The results of the project will benefit gardening enthusiasts, private breeders, botanists and nursery growers in Florida and beyond.

“Wax begonia marketability has waned as a result of recent heat waves and droughts,” said Ben Bolusky, Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association CEO. “Dr. Huo’s exciting research offers potential to find best traits to enhance stress tolerance into new begonia cultivars.”

Begonias are diverse; there are more than 2,500 species of begonia so finding the perfect combination might be compared to finding a needle in a haystack. While the genomes of many other cash crops have been studied, genome studies on begonias are extremely limited.

“The scarce information on begonia genomics greatly hinders begonia breeding,” said Huo. “Often, genes of two parent plants are incompatible and the plans cannot successfully pollinate. Over the last two years, our begonia collection has grown and now includes more than 240 different types from countries around the world.”

The collection is expected to expand to 450 by spring 2022.

Understanding how the species responds to harsh environmental conditions will allow scientists to identify and select the most suitable begonia for enhanced stress tolerance.

The problem reaches beyond Florida. Growers in both tropical and subtropical regions have had issues breeding and successfully growing the plants.

“These findings will drastically affect the utilization and marketability of begonia in subtropical and tropical regions. Development of heat and drought resistant cultivars will improve water use efficiency and maximizing growers’ profit by reducing production cost,” said Huo.

“FNGLA and our members enjoy a long, proud history of collaborating with UF/IFAS,” said Bolusky. “The scientific research produced by UF/IFAS is one of the integral keys in growing Florida’s $25.4 billion nursery and landscape industry.”

The project team includes several UF/IFAS collaborators; David Norman, professor of plant pathology at UF/IFAS MREC, Sandra Wilson, professor of environmental horticulture and Brooke Moffis, UF/IFAS Extension Lake County horticulture agent.

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