The huge, showy begonia blossoms that can be seen in the Display House during the summer at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens have a quite humble origin. Plants of the genus Begonia (family Begoniaceae) were first "discovered" by Charles Plumier, a Franciscan monk and botanist, who was visiting the Antilles Island (Dominican Republic) in 1690 to collect rare plants. There, he found six species of this plant, with flowers no bigger than the size of a golf ball, and named them in honor of Michael Begon, the governor of Santo Domingo.
The first tuberous begonias, so named because they grow from thickened, fleshy portions of underground stem (tubers), to reach England were members of the species Begonia evansiana from the mountains of Java. During the 1880s, begonia species from South America began to pour into the Kew Gardens. These included, among others, B. boliviensis, B. darkei, B. davisii, B. pearcei, B. rosiflora, and B. veitchii, the major progenitors of modern tuberous begonias. Hybridizers in England and all across Europe began crossing these different species, attempting to improve flower size and form, stem vigor, and disease resistance. By the 1890s, giant, single- and double-flowered cultivars and hybrids that hardly resembled the original begonia species were available.
In the early 1900s, tuberous begonias were introduced to the United States, where they flourished in the mild coastal climate of central California. This climate is very similar to that of the native habitat of the first begonias, which grow in highland valleys on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains. While equatorial, these high altitude regions have a very mild climate. The summers, from November to March, have high temperatures in the 60s and 70s and lows in the 50s and 60s. This is also the rainy season. The winter season in the Andes (June, July, and August) is very dry with high temperatures in the 50s and 60s. Freezing temperatures are very rare. Thus, with an almost identical climate, coastal California is an ideal home for the offshoots of the first begonias.