Begonia ‘Canary Wings’

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Begonia ‘Canary Wings’—a chance discovery led to a huge hit

You, like so many of us, probably handle a large number of plants during the course of your job. You may have seen a sport or a mutation pass under your hands and wondered, “What if…? Could this odd little plant become the next big industry hit?” It would be like capturing lightning in a jar.

That lightning actually struck about 90 miles to our northeast in a garden center outside of Columbus. Back in 2013 ‘Canary Wings’ first appeared in some ‘Dragon Wing’ six-packs as a green-gold stripe on an otherwise normal forest green leaf. At the time the production grower, Jared Hughes, thought the stripe was pretty so he wondered…

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‘Canary Wings’ grew well with Begonia ‘Gryphon’ under our Magnolias

Fire Under Smoke

Recognizing a spark is one thing; nursing it into a fire is another. Light green mutations often interfere with photosynthesis, so Jared first propagated the cutting into fully mature samples. Was the sport stable, or did it revert back? Was it garden-worthy with attractive habit, good flowers, and normal growth? It took two years for Jared to answer these questions.

He also had the sport indexed for viruses. Color aberrations are often caused by infections, so it was important to confirm that a virus hadn’t induced the mutation before years of effort were committed to the new plant. Also, it would have been a black mark against anyone who unknowingly handed off dirty material to a potential partner in the channel.

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We have shown ‘Canary Wings’ in our 2018 and 2019 Field Day beds

Ramping Up Production

When a discovery passes these basic tests, the next step is to bring the unique plant onto the market. It’s a big commitment, because it involves stock farms, cutting and plug production, samples for university and customer trials, and building awareness through trade shows, the sales channel, and the press. Several firms assist with this phase, and some independent breeders arrange the whole stack by themselves but Jared chose Ball Ingenuity as his partner.

A breeding partner often repeats these tests, first to protect their production chain from problems, but also to give them a chance to figure out possible snags when ramping up production. Although signature features are desirable, they can also throw up unexpected blocks to producing volume numbers. Working out these details took ‘Canary Wings’ another three years.

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Customers love the dramatic color difference from ‘Dragon Wing Red’

An Excellent Plant

At Diefenbacher Greenhouses we’ve been working with ‘Canary Wings’ for three years and we can say this is a remarkable plant. While the owners like to point to their 2017 and 2018 Medals of Excellence that are usually awarded to big-time breeders, we are more impressed by a different form of recognition: customers run to ‘Canary Wings’ like bears to honey.

Set some out and you’ll see what we have already seen. ‘Canary Wings’ grows with the same culture, care, grace, and habit as ‘Dragon Wing Red’ but the dramatic color difference is the selling point. Longwood Gardens uses it for massive interior displays and we use it to build mixed shade beds with various Coleus. ‘Canary Wings’ drapes a big display over large ceramic pots and impresses even in baskets hung high up overhead. Shade and partial shade scenarios are its strong suit.

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We use ‘Canary Wings’ with various Coleus to build mixed shade beds

The Achilles’ Heel

If ‘Canary Wings’ had an Achilles’ Heel it would be full sun—the plant scorches in sunlight around high noon. Morning light is no problem and it loves evening sun, but overhead light is too strong. The red pigment in the leaf acts as a kind of sunscreen that helps ‘Dragon Wing’ to acclimate. It is missing in ‘Canary Wings’, so the leaf just scorches. If you have pale Irish skin you are familiar with the problem.

As remarkable as the plant is, it’s even more remarkable that lightning struck so close by, caught in a jar just 90 miles away. Today ‘Canary Wings’ is a market phenomenon and it’s all because seven years ago a grower in an Ohio garden center spotted an accident and saw an opportunity. It makes us look over our own production crops and wonder, “What if…?”

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Impressive color in overhead baskets and draping over ceramic pots

‘Canary Wings’ is available in the 4.5-inch tray of 10 and the 8-inch pot.