Sunday, January 3, 2016

Plant Story--Bougainvillea, from Brazil to the World


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
The colorful flowering displays that make bougainvilleas so popular are not actually bright-colored flowers but bracts, modified leaves, that surround the tubular white or cream-colored flowers.  The bracts come in colors from red and purple to pink, orange, yellow and white (see examples). 

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
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 Los Angeles
The name bougainvillea is based on the scientific name for the genus, Bougainvillea. Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Comte de Bougainville, was a French soldier and sailor. In 1766 the French government commissioned him to sail around the world, finding new territories for France. He took along a naturalist, Philibert Commerson (also spelled Commerçon) and it was at the very beginning of the trip, in Rio de Janiero, that the first bougainvilleas known to western science were collected. Impressed by the bright bracts, Commerson named them for the admiral, as Bougainvillea.

bougainvillea in Spain
Bougainvillea in the garden of the Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Hardy and beautiful, bougainvilleas quickly went around the world. I particularly like the picture above because it reveals how much people like bougainvilleas. In the garden in the foreground, the curators of the Alhambra Palace, in Granada Spain, are trying to create a collection of plants that would have been grown by the Moors when they ruled the region from the Alhambra, that is, during the 400 years before the Moors were expelled from Spain in 1492. The bougainvillea clearly does not fit that: as noted, it was first found by Europeans in 1767. But the gardeners of the Alhambra have left it because it is so beautiful.

bougainvillea in Spain
Bougainvillea in Portugal
Recently, the story of the discovery of bougainvillea has been revised. Commerson did go on the voyage and was the botanist. But his housekeeper and lover, Jeanne Baret (Baré) went along as Commerson's assistant. The French navy absolutely and explicitly prohibited women on naval vessels. Nevertheless, Baret disguised herself as a man and sailed with Commerson.  Almost certainly she did most of the plant collecting on the voyage because Commerson was frequently unwell. Therefore Baret probably found bougainvillea and many of the other plants Commerson described for science. The surviving journals of the expedition barely mention her, probably due to a mix of sexism and fear of the consequences of admitting that they knew the "no women!" rule was broken.

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
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. 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.   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.
Duke, J. A. and R. Vasquez. 1994. Amazonian Ethnobotany Dictionary. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.
Folk Haven. Herbal Cough Remedy: Bougainvillea tea Accessed 12/25/15
Philippine Medicinal Plants. Bogambilya Bougainvillea spectabilis

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. 

Kathy Keeler
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  1. Very good information about the discovery of bougainvillea and its true history.

  2. I'm curious about how and when bougainvillea was introduced to Mexico? Can you share what you know about that? Thanks.

  3. I cannot find anything. I will continue to look!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Bougs are my favorite. I'm a retired landscape contractor, now a freelance writer for a gardening site. Love your piece, thank you.
    Is California the first known location of Bougainvillea in the U.S.? Do you know anything about how it first came to Arizona?
    Thanks for your article, great info on the hard-to-find thorough history and spread of this plant.

  6. Nothing I have talks about when Bougainvillea came to different parts of the U.S. This says first to Florida from Hawaii, and the references may give you more info.

    1. Hello, where can I buy seeds of deep purple bougainvillea please. Also, is Chinese bougainvillea authentic? Many thanks.

    2. I have many variety of bougainvillea...🥰

  7. Do you have any idea what the Brazilians called bougainvillea or even call it now? I'd love to know more about its history prior to the French exploration. Thanks.

    1. In some parts of Brazil we call then primavera (spring).

  8. In the past, before it was "discovered" by Bougainville it was called primavera (Spring) but nowadays it is being also called buganvilia or bougainvillea. The reasons for the that are a bit long to write here.