Bougainvillea are everywhere in Haikou. You can’t go outside without seeing at least a few varieties. Even at the kindergarten there are some planted. It’s not difficult to see why they are a popular ornamental plant, especially in the tropics where their vibrant colours can be seen all year. They are fast growing and adapt well to new environments, making them high risk for becoming invasive if not properly maintained.
Within the genus there are anywhere between 4-18 species, depending who you ask, and over 300 varieties. They can grow as vines, bushes, and trees, in a range of bright colours. Like most beautiful things in the world, Bougainvillea plants have thorns. The sap is mildly toxic, and a prick from a thorn can cause dermatitis similar to poison ivy.
The colourful part of the plant is actually not the flower, but the bracts. Bracts are modified leaves which grow around the flower. If you think of a poinsettia, for example, the red parts that draw people to them are bracts which surround a central flower cluster, which are small and not very showy. The actual flower of the Bougainvillea is the small white structure in the centre.
Because the bracts are so thin and flat, they’re much easier to press than most flowers. Learn more about how to press them HERE.
In my eyes, Bougainvillea really is just another pretty ornamental plant and not that interesting on it’s own. I was hesitant to feature this genus because it’s not really an exotic species; it’s cultivated around the world, quite popular, and not native to China. In the end I decided to write about it because it photographs well, and it has an interesting history.
Bougainvillea is named for French Navy admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville. The plant was discovered during his voyage to circumnavigate the globe from 1766-69. Philibert Commerçon was the lead botanist on the voyage, and was accompanied by an “assistant”. Jeanne Barét, a fellow botanist and Commerçon’s lover, disguised herself as a boy and played the role of assistant to gain passage on the ship. Women, at the time, were not permitted on naval ships. Barét, an expert in botany, is likely responsible for the discovery of many plants on this expedition, though all the credit was given to Commerçon. Commerçon was is poor health for much of the journal, and a majority of the labour and plant collection was done by Barét, making it more likely that she found many of the documented species.
Through this expedition, Barét became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. At some point during the journey her identity was discovered, though accounts of how it happened in the journals of other passengers are contradictory. The stories range from being identified by locals in Tahiti, to being discovered and gang-raped by her fellow crewmates.
It was not an easy time for women in science. Now every time I see Bougainvillea, I think of Jeanne Barét, the lengths she had to go to pursue her interests, and how fortunate I am to be able to travel and study wherever and whatever I choose.
Miller, R. Bougainvillea Dangers. SF Gate. Accessed HERE.
Ridley, G. (2012). A Female Explorer Discovered On The High Seas. All Things Considered. National Public Radio (NPR). Accessed HERE.
Stein, G. (2010). Introduction to Bougainvillea. Dave’s Garden. Accessed HERE.