on February 07, 2017

the ballarat begonia festival - a brief history

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BALLARAT'S begonias have attracted travellers from all over since the flower first arrived here in the late 19th century. But why? What's all the fuss about?

To explore this properly, let's start off with a brief history lesson.

The flower itself was discovered in Peru and Bolivia in 1864 by Englishman Richard Pierce who then took it back to Britain where it hybridised rapidly across the UK and Europe.

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Not long after, the begonias made their way to Ballarat when leading local nurserymen Smith, Nichols and Lang imported them to the city.

"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 says.

"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!"

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Coming to Ballarat to view the begonias became a regular thing, 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 says.

"In 1952, after a break of several years due to WWII, the organizer 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 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 of a festival to showcase begonias in Ballarat."

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And so the rest is history. The first 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, and even light opera!

As of last year, the festival housed the world's largest Lego begonia which will also be on show this weekend.

And even though the festival had its beginnings more than 60 years ago, Lorraine says things don't look to stagnate any time soon.

"Starting even before the Moomba festival in Melbourne, our Begonia Festival has waxed and waned over the years, but today is firmly in the hearts of our community," she says.

"It is held in a magnificent setting with spacious grounds at the edge of Lake Wendouree and gives a wide range of activities for every age group.

"The sheer size and volume of the exhibits still astonishes the crowds, both the young and the old. These plants are not easy to grow for any but the keen amateur, and to see the result achieved by our skilled professionals delights, impresses and enchants the general public."

The Ballarat Begonia Festival will be held between March 11 and 13.

Click for 2017 Festival Program

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