Discovered in Peru and Bolivia in 1864 by Englishman Richard Pierce, the beautiful begonia was transported back to Britain where it was rapidly hybridised across the UK and Europe.
It wasn’t long after that begonias made their way to Ballarat when leading local nurserymen Smith, Nichols and Lang each imported the plants to the city as novelties in the late 19th century.
“Ballarat Botanical Gardens curator George Longley is recorded as successfully exhibiting begonias in the 1870s and 1880s,” Friends of the Ballarat Botanical Gardens history convenor Lorraine Powell said.
“Begonias proved to be able to be readily grown in Ballarat. Each week, a box of flowers was sent by rail to the Flinders Street Station Tourist Information Bureau for display and, in the autumn, tuberous begonias were displayed, tempting travellers to consider a trip to Ballarat.”
“Suburban rail advertising of the period refers to Ballarat as the City of Statues and Begonias.”
Coming to Ballarat to view the begonias became a regular trip for Victorians and the flowers were displayed in several locations across the city. Many associations would also hold picnics during autumn, including the Railways Social Club Picnic, which attracted crowds of several thousand for the Labour Day weekend.
“In 1938, a floral festival was held, and the entire city was festooned with floral decorations, many of which were paper begonias. Trams and boats were decorated with paper begonias as well,” Lorraine said.
“In 1952, after a break of several years due to World War II, the organiser of Railway Picnics wrote saying the picnics would be resumed and wanting to know whether there were sports or events in Ballarat at that time.”
“That year, local horticulturalist George Swenson showed Ballarat mayor Arthur Nicholson and real estate agent Edgar Bartrop photographs from his trip to America and compared the begonias grown in the USA to those grown in the Ballarat gardens. This inspired them to conceive a festival to showcase begonias in Ballarat.”
The first Ballarat Begonia Festival was held on March 6, 1953, and featured a mini glasshouse in front of the Town Hall. Since then, the event has included everything from parades to car rallies, beauty pageants to water skiing, floral carpets to light opera!
America’s Capitola Begonia Festival served as an official sister festival, launching in 1953 and wrapping up in 2017.
The begonia-covered tram of yesteryear will make a comeback at this year’s festival with the iconic Floral Tram to be covered with handmade flowers created from recycled plastic.
The 2019 festival will also feature a range of activities for the whole family, as well as a line-up of entertainment, talks, culinary delights and celebrity guests including Get Grubby TV’s dirtgirl, River Cottage Australia host Paul West and the return of crowd favourite Costa Georgiadis on Labour Day.
The Ballarat Begonia Festival will be held on March 9-11 at the Ballarat Botanical Gardens.