Come Into the Garden

Photo by Josh Johnston

Bougainvillea

This exotic plant catches your attention and steals your heart with its beauty. It is the Cinderella of the garden. Its colorful flower brings a bright burst of excitement to every breathtaking landscape.

Bougainvillea is a subtropical flowering vine named for Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729 – 1811), the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe during a three-year voyage in the mid-1700s. Philibert Commerson, a flagship botanist was the first to describe this plant in scientific literature, but it was his assistant, an herbalist named Jeanne Baret, who found it growing in the hills near Rio de Janeiro and carried it back on board. Baret had disguised herself as a man to sail with him around the world. After two years at sea, her identity was discovered. In an attempt to wiggle out of this dangerous situation, Commerson assured the admiral that his name would live on in botanical perpetuity, and Bouganvillea agreed to spare Baret’s life. Commerson named Baret’s vine B. brasiliensis. There are approximately 14 species of bougainvillea, and all of them come from South America.

As a commercial nursery plant, bougainvillea probably came to California as seed or cuttings from Brazil by way of Australia in the 1860s, long after the Spanish flag was lowered over California. What many people think of as the blooms of bougainvillea are not actually blooms at all. The showy paper-like structures are a modified leaf called a bract. These three bracts hide the true flowers inside, which are small, trumpet-shaped flowers in whites and yellows. Its nickname is the "paper flower " due to its thin and papery bracts.

Bougainvillea are a gardener’s dream, and a much-loved plant in warmer zones. It is both drought-resistant and needs just moderate watering. Deadheading is not necessary. Bougainvillea prefers no fertilizer while blooming. Instead, feed it lightly in late summer or early fall after flowering has stopped, and its leaves have lost some of their brilliance. It is naturally resistant to pests and disease. When it comes to landscape design, it’s also one of the most versatile flowers: Depending on the species, it can be grown in pots, as a bonsai, in hanging baskets, along walls, over trellises, as a hedge, and other places in the garden. No matter how you decorate your garden with it, the bougainvillea and its explosive color will turn your home into a tropical paradise.

At the Virginia Robinson Gardens

At Robinson Gardens, a bougainvillea plant covers the entire back wall of the tennis court where Virginia Robinson played tennis with Charlie Chaplin and friends. It blooms nearly year-round and was propagated from a cutting made by Virginia when she traveled to South Africa.

This tennis court with the beautiful bougainvillea vine in the background has been a popular location for many magazine covers. Below is the cover for Martha Stewart Weddings magazine:

Bougainvillea are a unique flower choice for flower arrangements. These pretty petals with their incredibly bright colors and long branches, crowded with fluttery blooms, create interesting and unstructured shapes that make wonderful floral arrangements for dinner parties and special occasions like weddings.

Post by Joan Selwyn
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member
Founder of the Friends

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