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His purr-fect plant became Catwoman tribute

In the garden with Paul Tsamtsis, who enjoys growing a variety of begonias, among other plants in Sacramento, Calif. on August 23, 2017.
In the garden with Paul Tsamtsis, who enjoys growing a variety of begonias, among other plants in Sacramento, Calif. on August 23, 2017.

It’s a small begonia world after all.

Sacramento plant collector and hybridizer Paul Tsamtsis discovered that when he came up with a fuzzy plant covered with fine hairs.

“See how they stand up on the edge of the leaves?” he said, stroking the foliage. “It reminded me of the hairs on a kitten’s ear. So, of course, that reminded me of Catwoman.”

As in Batman and DC Comics. In particular, Tsamtsis had one Catwoman in mind – actress Julie Newmar, who made famous her feline alter-ego opposite Adam West’s Batman in the 1960s TV show.

Tsamtsis, who hybridized this begonia with kitten fur foliage, named the plant “Julie Newmar.” But first, he wanted to formally get her permission.

That took several months, he said, but finally Newmar called. Yes, she’d love a begonia with leaves covered in kitten fur. It would be “purr-fect.”

Newmar, who lives in Los Angeles, also is a devoted gardener and begonia lover. Coincidentally, she knew some of the same begonia specialists as Tsamtsis. “We hit it right off,” he said. “She’s just a real charmer.”

Eventually, Tsamtsis delivered two “Julie Newmar” begonias to Newmar in person.

“She picked one up and rubbed her nose against a leaf, just like a cat,” he recalled. “She’ll always be Catwoman.”

Tsamtsis has many more begonia stories, almost one for every plant. He grows close to 400 different varieties in his shady garden in Sacramento’s Del Paso neighborhood. Many of his plants will be on display during the 69th annual Sacramento Begonia Show and Sale, set for Sept. 9 and 10 at Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park.

His collection includes two begonias named for him – “Paul Tsamtsis” and “Lt. Tsamtsis,” noting his time in the Navy. Both plants were hybridized and named by renowned plant breeder, Brad Thompson. But the tributes show Tsamtsis’ long standing in the begonia community.

Besides begonias, Tsamtsis also grows a wide assortment of other shade-loving plants from bromeliads and camellias to impatiens and streptocarpus. But the begonias are undoubtedly his favorites.

His garden is full of old friends and family, or rather plants bearing their names. Another beloved begonia is “Morris Mueller,” his tribute to a longtime Sacramento educator and research specialist. The spiraled lime-green leaves feature finely ruffled chocolate brown edges.

Tsamtsis currently is working with a major wholesale nursery to introduce both varieties to the public, a process that can take a few years.

“ ‘Morris’ and ‘Julie’ both came out of the same seedpod,” Tsamtsis noted proudly. “When you breed begonias, you never know what you’re going to get.”

That’s part of this plant family’s appeal. Its genus contains more than 1,800 species of begonias.

“And just about all of them cross with one another (when hybridized),” Tsamtsis said. “You can get some completely freaky leaf shapes. The possibilities are endless.”

For almost 35 years, Tsamtsis has been passionate about begonias. He grows all sorts from familiar angel wings (“like Grandma used to grow”) to exotic boliviensis. They range from tiny plants, barely 4 inches tall, to large shrubs reaching 15 feet or more.

“You can get every flower color except blue,” he said. “And the foliage is beautiful, too. It’s a really varied plant; that’s why I like them. Hybridizing them is easy. It’s my art form, creating new plants.”

And those plants create connections, too, Tsamtsis added, including one to the famous Catwoman.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

69th annual Sacramento Begonia Show and Sale

Where: Shepard Garden and Arts Center, 3330 McKinley Blvd., Sacramento

When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10

Admission: Free

Details: www.sgaac.org

Highlights: See hundreds of begonias in bloom at this beautiful judged flower show. In addition, more than 1,000 unusual plants – most priced at $9 – will be for sale including many varieties offered for the first time.

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