Plumbers and Horticulturists

Millie and Ed Thompson wrote the standard guide to begonias
Rex begonia flowers are not much to look at. They grow on long, unsightly stems that can flop over if they get top-heavy, as here. Durell Godfrey

Forty or so years ago, there was a couple on Hill Street in Southampton whose business was plumbing, but whose mutual passion was the study and nurture of begonias. Their office and the tools of their trade were housed in a modest building set well back from the road; driving by in the summer you wouldn’t have noticed it at all but for the “E&M Thompson Plumbing” sign and dozens of hanging baskets, overflowing with trailing begonia plants, suspended from branches on the trees out front. It looked nothing like a business, but a lot like the entrance to a botanic garden, which in a way it was.

I drove by one day and saw a middle-aged woman balanced on a ladder, reaching up into the trees to hang another pot. She was Mildred Thompson. A plumber’s daughter who married a plumber, she was a licensed plumber herself — as well as, with the enthusiastic support of her husband, Edward, the author of a book that even today many growers still consider the begoniac bible.

This pair, working from a garage out back that they’d turned into a hothouse (they lived up above), over the years hybridized and propagated untold thousands of plants, starting from seeds, leaves, cuttings, or rhizomes. If you called ahead, Millie was happy to let you wander alone among the infant begonias growing under lights on long tables, and to sell you a few, for, if memory serves, a dollar apiece. I still have one of their babies, which spends the winter in the south-facing front window of The Star (pictured); it is about 40 years old and looks to be in the prime of life. People sometimes ask what kind of plant it is and are surprised to hear it’s a begonia.

Most people, when they picture begonias, probably think of the two most popular and easily available kinds: wax (semperflorens) and tuberous (non-stop). You usually see the small, many-colored flowers of wax begonias used as bedding or border plants in gardens; the larger, more striking non-stops, especially the doubles (red, orange, yellow, white, pink), are great for window boxes, tubs, or hanging baskets.

 I grow dark-leaved white and yellow non-stops in west-facing window boxes every year, and try to buy them early at local nurseries, because they go fast. I’m not the only one who’s figured out that the darker the leaves the longer lasting the plant.

But your true begonia enthusiast is more likely into rexes. Rex begonias are grown not for their flowers but for their leaves, which have colorful patterns and come in many different shapes and sizes. Rex’s unassuming blooms, on long ungainly stems like mine in The Star’s window, drop off after a month or two — the sooner the better, if you ask me. In fact, some growers advise cutting the flowers off at the stem so the plant’s entire energy can go into growing leaves.

The Thompsons first came to the attention of horticulturalists in September 1970 at a begonia show in Westbury, where they exhibited one of their plants for the first time; it was a B. foliosa, often called fern begonia. It won Best in Show.

 “We walked in and looked at all the beautiful plants and were going to leave,” Millie wrote to a friend in 2010, not long before her death, “but you brought us back in with our plant.” In 1971, at a convention in Boston, the couple took Best in Show again, this time along with a “sweepstakes” title for the most blue ribbons over all. They were off and running.

Those were pre-internet days, but the American Begonia Society’s monthly magazine spread the word. From the Southampton Post Office, Millie and Ed were soon shipping their seedlings to nurseries and private buyers around the country, all the while continuing not only to fix leaky toilets but also to conduct intensive research into every aspect of begonia cultivation and to write about what they’d learned. In 1975, Millie collected these early writings and published them as “The Thompson Begonia Guide” in a loose-leaf format.

Academic botanists took notice. The second edition of their Guide (1977) was reviewed by a curator at Harvard’s august Arnold Arboretum, who called it “very impressive though unorthodox,” in that it would be appreciated not only by competitive show-growers and experienced hybridizers, but also beginners who just wanted to know how to keep a plant alive. 

Out in Minnesota, meanwhile, a botanist named a rex cultivar in Millie’s honor. It has “medium-size green leaves . . . edged in dark red, with mottled light pink and green spots,” according to its official description. In 2012, B. Millie Thompson won Best in Show at the begonia society’s Southwest Regional convention.

Harvard’s reviewer urged that the loose-leaf version of the Guide be updated and brought out as “a real book.” The result was “Begonias: The Complete Reference Guide”(Times Books, 1981), which remains a standard.

 Around the same time, with their 1,900 varieties of begonias threatening to grow through the garage walls, the Thompsons found a new home for the collection: a dilapidated greenhouse on the grounds of nearby Southampton College. They restored and enlarged it at their own expense, with the college footing the bills for heat, electricity, and maintenance. During the ’80s the greenhouse became a mecca for horticulturalists, who traveled from near and far and counted themselves fortunate, as the bi-monthly publication The Begonian put it, to see “hundreds of perfectly grown begonias beautifully displayed.”

 Then something terrible happened. In 1986, vandals broke in to the greenhouse, smashing the windows and destroying a large number of plants. For the Thompsons, the incident was an unmitigated disaster from which they never recovered. That they lost all interest in the world of begonias afterward might be overstating it, but they did withdraw from it. The year after the vandalism they broke up their collection and donated the bulk of it to the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

There were no more books after the “Complete Reference Guide,” though Millie kept in touch with begonia friends and other growers. In her later years she organized sections of her research into pamphlets and made them available.

“Millie, who was very protective of her work, has specified in her will that no changes can ever be made to her book,” The Begonian noted in her obituary. Used copies of the Guide, which is said to be a dependable fund-raiser at begonia auctions, can occasionally be found on eBay. New, in the original dust jacket, it sells for up to $185 on Amazon.

Hairy leaves with fuzzy edges are a pretty sure sign that it’s a Rex begonia rather than a non-stop or a wax. Rexes are grown not for their flowers but for their leaves, which come in all different shapes, sizes, and patterns.Durell Godfrey
Forty years later, one of Millie and Ed Thompson’s babies is still flourishing. It spends winters until mid-May in a sunny corner of The Star’s south-facing front window. Durell Godfrey