Debbie Arrington

After local sources wilt, Sacramento begonia bash gets color, variety from afar

Begonia growers are part of a small world after all.

That camaraderie will be on display this weekend at the Shepard Garden and Arts Center during the annual Sacramento begonia show. It celebrates America’s “Year of the Begonia,” a designation made by the National Garden Bureau to celebrate this colorful and easy-to-grow plant family.

When Joan Coulat – better known as Sacramento’s begonia lady – needed special help for this year’s show, she found it 3,000 miles away.

Specifically, she was looking for hundreds of rare and collectible begonia plants, a staple of the Sacramento show’s annual sale and a commodity that’s become harder to find.

For many years, the local begonia society – which is named in Coulat’s honor – got its baby begonia plants from A&G Nurseries in San Marcos, then grew them out at a nursery in St. Helena. But in the past year, A&G closed and the Napa Valley nursery sold its acreage to a winery.

“I thought, ‘What are we going to do for our show?’ ” Coulat said. “All our California sources were gone.”

What appeared initially as a huge setback for Sacramento’s annual begonia celebration turned into a flower lover’s bonanza.

A longtime plant buyer for the now-shuttered Capital Nursery on Freeport Boulevard, Coulat has sources nationwide. She contacted a specialty grower in Florida who promised something special for Sacramento.

“She specializes in Rex begonias,” said Coulat, referring to begonias known for their spectacularly colored foliage. “She also has all sorts of hybrids. She collects begonias from growers and plant hunters who find new wild begonias in New Guinea and all over the world. She has plants that have never been grown in the U.S.”

And she’s sending them to Sacramento, Coulat added. “We’re getting 850 plants and they’re awesome! They’re varieties never seen on this coast; they’re all new to us. People are really excited. We’ve got (plant collectors) coming from San Francisco and San Jose, even all the way from Santa Barbara.”

In addition, several local club members propagated plants from their own collections to add to the sale. “We’ll have 100 miniature begonias for terrariums,” Coulat said, “plus a lot of other nice plants.”

Although shipping costs were much higher this year, the plants are priced to sell, mostly at $9 each.

“We’re really proud of this show,” she added. “It’s going to be really big and beautiful.”

Video: How to make your own begonia terrarium

Biting into Jaws

These ears were huge! Jaws, Burpee’s new oversize yellow corn, lived up to its advance billing. I wasn’t lucky enough to get the seeds – they were sold out – but I did get to taste the actual corn, courtesy of a sample from the Pennsylvania-based seed company.

One of the crazy big sample ears measured 14 inches long, almost double a typical 8-inch ear. The kernels were twice as big as “normal” sweet corn, but the cob stayed slim (just twice as long). One ear indeed served two people.

As promised, Jaws tasted like old-fashioned yellow corn — sweet and crunchy. The gigantic kernels were surprisingly tender, too. The hardest part? Getting my mouth around the ear.

A sample of Burpee’s Meatball eggplant also arrived. Marketed for its meatiness, this new hybrid featured dense, moist flesh. Cooked into a casserole, Meatball had no bitterness and wasn’t watery. Like its name implies, Meatball tasted “meaty,” too, absorbing the casserole’s flavors. This is one new veggie variety I’ll add to the garden next summer.