Bougainvillea is one of the most common and most recognizeable tropical ornamental plants.
"Oh look, there's bougainvillea!"
And then we walk on.
But there's more to its story. For example, it was probably collected for western science by the first woman to sail around the world.
Bougainvilleas (genus Bougainvillea, four o'clock family, Nyctaginaceae) are woody plants native to tropical South America. There are 14 recognized species, but the cultivated bougainvilleas are derived from three species and their hybrids. There has been so much crossing and recrossing that it difficult to work out scientific names for most plants.
|White flowers surrounded by magenta bracts|
Since Europeans discovered bougainvilleas in the late 1700s, they have been planted all around the tropical world. They are drought-, salt- and wind-resistant, but require temperatures higher than 60 F and hours of full sun. They will grow as shrubs, or vines, or even low ground covers. They have spines which help them climb but that can be hard on gardeners.
|Bougainvillea in Australia|
My photos are from Los Angeles, Granada Spain, southern Portugal, Hawaii and the Northern Territory of Australia, all places where bougainvilleas are not native but where they are grown and loved.
In fact, bougainvilleas are the official flowers of : three cities in California, four cities in Guangdong China, one city in the Philipines, and one city in Okinawa; a county in Taiwan, a state in Malaysia, and a province in the Philippines, and of the islands of Grenada and Guam--to name those I know of (list in Wikipedia). Again, all places to which bougainvillea is not native but introduced.
|Bougainvillea in Los Angeles|
|Bougainvillea in the garden of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain|
|Bougainvillea in Portugal|
Baret and Commerson left the expedition in Mauritius, where he died in 1773. Baret returned to France, where the government gave her a pension for the rest of her life. She is first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe.
|Bougainvillea on Kauai, Hawaii|
Before being found by Baret, the people of the Amazon region used bougainvillea as a medicinal herb. Since being planted worldwide, it has become part of diverse folk medicines. Recent studies seem to support that it contains a compound with insulin-like properties. In addition, it has long been used for upper respiratory complaints. (See references). Some sources list it as mildly toxic, so either don't take a medicine you don't need or varieties vary, or both. Medicinal uses certainly add a neat dimension to a plant I thought had only of ornamental value.
My favorite use of bougainvillea, however, is as confetti. For example, it is dried and sold for confetti by The East African Petal Company: link. Africa is another adopted home of the widely-dispersed bougainvillea.
|bougainvillea, Kauai, Hawaii|
Bougainvillea is a tropical garden plant that is easy for visitors new to the tropics to learn to recognize. It is so commonly grown that one quickly stops noticing it, despite the brilliant colors. And yet, there's a grand story about how it was discovered, it may contribute to medical progress and if you have access to them, try saving the bracts to toss at your next celebration. As usual, there is more to the plant than meets the eye.
Comments and corrections welcome.
Jeanne Baret's story is told in Glynis Ridley's recent book, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. Crown Publishing.
In 2012 Dr. Eric Tepe of the University of Utah and University of Cincinatti named a plant for Baret, Solanum baretiae (see Cohen's article, in references below), something long overdue.
Cohen, J. 2012 First woman to circle the globe honored at last. http://www.history.com/news/first-woman-to-circle-the-globe-honored-at-last Accessed 12/24/15
Donaldson, E. 2011. The Discovery of Jeanne Baret (book review). link
Goodall, J. with G. Hudson. 2014. Seeds of Hope. Grand Central Publishing, New York. Nice section about Commerson and Baret.
Katemopoulos, K. Bougainvillea Plant History. Garden Guides. gardenguides.com/95724-bougainvillea-plant-history.html Accessed Dec. 25, 2015.
Kobayashi, K. D., J. McConnell and J. Griffis. 2007. Bougainvillea. Cooperative Extension Service, University of Hawai'i at Manoa. online at link
Ridley, G. 2010. The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. Crown Publishing (see e.g. interview link)
As Herbal Medicine:
Adebayo, G. I, O. T. Alabi, B. V. Owoyele and A. O. Soladoye. 2009. Anti-diabetic properties of the aqueous leaf extract of Bougainvillea spectabilis (Glory of the Garden) on alloxan-induced diabetic rats. Rec. Nat. Prod. 3 (4): 187-192.
Banerjee, V. K. Healing power of plants. http://wonderwoman.intoday.in/story/healing-power-of-herbs/1/105565.html
Duke, J. A. and R. Vasquez. 1994. Amazonian Ethnobotany Dictionary. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.
Folk Haven. Herbal Cough Remedy: Bougainvillea tea https://folkhaven.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/herbal-cough-remedy-bougainvillea-tea/ Accessed 12/25/15
Philippine Medicinal Plants. Bogambilya Bougainvillea spectabilis http://www.stuartxchange.com/Bogambilya
Posts on the web often repeat each other. For bougainvillea, Aggie Horticulture link and PLANTanswers link describe the history of bougainvillea in exactly the same words, with the same misspelling of Admiral deBougainville's name. Both websites seem to imply that they wrote the information. Despite being in different cities, they do appear to be, in some weird way, the same Texas organization, but the writer in me thinks whoever actually wrote the information should get credit, on both sites.
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