The Romance of Illuminations

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Illuminations establish the romance at this Begonia wedding

One of the jobs annuals do is an emotional performance. They use their forms and colors to turn a house into a home or a landscape into a vista in much the same way that we decorate a space with photos, furniture, draperies, and other emotional knick-knacks of our lives. Think of a lamp—it performs a function, but it also states who we are and the style we like.

For some annuals, the thrill of the moment is their job. They deliver the emotional punch in places where high-impact has high value. We call them Impact Tools, and a good example is the Illumination Begonia. Let’s take a look at its strength in showmanship, its accompanying restrictions, and some innovative ways to use it.

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Look up and you see ‘Apricot Shades surrounding the bottom of the basket


Illuminations are among the few products we have to look up at to admire. Most of their color spills over the sides and hangs below a basket, or up and over the sides of a container, so that is where the focus lies. There are blooms on the tops and sides, but the rainfall of color is a style the Illumination can call its own.

We use that rainfall look, just like theater set designers, architects, and movie directors, to gain an emotional connection with the audience, and the Illumination is the tool that delivers it. Lots of professionals in green goods use these techniques already. Garden centers build displays with bench drama to attract customers; landscapers add flair for clients in their seasonal color mix, and public works personnel decorate municipal parks and other locations in the community to promote special events. Even event planners use the Illuminations to dress their stages for a romantic look.

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Twisting stigmas on the female single of ‘Illumination Rose’—the double is male


In essence, Illuminations build a romantic aura into their scenes. This is courtesy of two features. The first is the rose-shaped flower that floats in the air. Most flowers are large doubles that happen to be the males. They are heavy, hang toward the bottom, and are delightful to see from both the front and the side. The smaller singles are female and tend to appear toward the top and sides of the plant.

Building on these rosy shapes is The Begonia Glow, a quality all Begonias have. Their petals are fleshy but they are semi-translucent, too. The flowers catch the morning or evening light, bounce it around their tissues, and then let it radiate back out again. In the Illuminations, their broad petals catch and reflect more light, and the cascading color that surrounds the plant makes sure more glow points are present in the scene. Catch an Illumination in the right light and you find yourself catching your breath.

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Benary’s innovative internode branching allows color to cascade down


Illuminations used to be a staple of the industry, so much so that they became their own category. Decades ago, Benary introduced an innovative set of breeding to the category: the Illuminations had fully-double flowers that matched the Non-Stop Begonias they were based upon (another Benary innovation). As a result, you can color match both series if you need color in both high places and low.

Older varieties only bloomed at the tips, but Benary introduced short-node branching into the series. Illumination color cascades over the top and down the sides, rather than appearing only at the ends of the plant. This genetic change not only colored up the whole habit of the plant, but also gave the Illuminations their floriferous reputation.

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‘Illumination Rose’ rests upon old farm machinery found on the site


Illuminations do well where high hanging color is needed. Think of those overhangs when you pull into a hotel, the veranda on an old Victorian home, or the patio area in an outdoor restaurant. However, Illumination’s trailing habit turns out to be controllable and flexible, so the plant can be worked around old farm equipment, hung among porch furniture, or used to surround town columns or fall over balcony railings. Work it into the props you find in a display or client site. This is the element of surprise at work, treating visitors to a dose of fun as well.

You can hang Illuminations from shepherd’s hooks in the full day sun for short-term events like weddings, real estate openings, or band concerts. For long-term care, the Illuminations usually get enough protection from their overhangs. They are especially fond of wooded areas—they love the dappled light, and it surprises guests to see sophisticated color in a rustic setting.

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Illuminations have a weather-resistant nature that works for public venues


This gets us into discussions over light. Around Cincinnati, it’s best to keep Illuminations under some sort of protection from the midday sun during the summer. Morning or evening sun is ok but the hot high noon sun scorches the plant over time. Folks who discuss full sun usually live to our north, in Chicago or Minneapolis. Sometimes the British chime in, but they call a sunny day into the police when it appears.

Like all Begonias, the Illuminations bloom all summer long if you feed them regularly. Remember, they live in a basket so the soil is sterile and all their food has to be provided to them. If at some point the plant starts to run low, the flowering will tire. We recommend a regular application of a normal amount of fertilizer to keep the plant perky and happy through the summer. You can expect some bonus flowers if you bump up the potassium levels.

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‘Illumination Apricot Shades’ looks delicate but resists weather and traffic 


To this day, Illumination remains one of the best plants for this type of showmanship. It used to be more common in the industry, but not anymore—it doesn’t fit well into the tight shape of chain carts or standardized bang-and-go landscaping. Illumination does its best work with designers who can find a special moment in that place and time, or within the independent channel where people still remember how to handle it, among gardeners who remember where they found it.

Our Illumination Begonias—in Rose, Orange, and Apricot Shades—come in the 10-inch hanging basket.

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‘Illumination Rose’ drapes over a daylily bed near a small stream