The Remarkable Bougainvillea at Robinson Gardens

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The gorgeous bougainvillea at the Virginia Robinson Gardens is always a spectacular sight, eliciting much admiration from visitors to the Gardens. Exploding with red and pink color, the dripping vines flow like botanical waterfalls.

According to Superintendent Timothy Lindsay, “The soft orchid pink, ‘ever-blooming’ bougainvillea growing on the chain link fence on the north end of the tennis court was a rooted cutting that Mrs. Robinson brought back from the Cape (in South Africa) where she was playing tennis with a friend. The pink bougainvillea bract (not a flower) was her favorite color, and she instantly fell in love with it on her friend’s court. The tennis court walls were also painted a rosy pink.

Once she returned home, she planted the cutting and when it began to grow, she painted the walls of her tennis court the same color as the walls on the court she fell in love with. The bougainvillea presumably was planted in 1925, when the court was finished. It has a huge trunk on the back side of the wall and is watered by hand once or twice a year during the summer; it is very drought tolerant.

We have successfully rooted cuttings from this plant, and we now have one trained up the front of the staff quarters and three planted on top of the wall above the employee parking lot. If the bougainvillea on the tennis court ever dies, we will replace it with one of the backup cuttings, so it will be the same genome.”

The bougainvillea even stars in a photo shoot at the Virginia Robinson Gardens in Martha Stewart’s Weddings magazine in 2015. Popular actress Sofia Vergara was engaged to actor Joe Manganiello, and she is featured on the cover of the magazine, nestled among the beautiful blooms of the bougainvillea!

According to writer and Los Angeles historian Nathan Masters, the plant is native to tropical South America. Its name originates from Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a French explorer who circumnavigated the globe in 1766-69; he discovered and recorded the first scientific observation of the exotic vine while anchored off Rio de Janeiro.

Bougainvillea probably first came to California as seeds or cuttings from Brazil via Australia in the 1860s. By the early 1900s, elaborate plantings of the vine helped enhance the vision of California as a colorful, semi-tropical paradise. In 1891, landscape architect Kate Sessions, (known as the “Mother of Balboa Park”), encouraged her readers in the San Diego Union to design their gardens around the vines: “Don’t discard the bougainvillea, but put it in the right place, and you will have a plant of oriental splendor.”  Paired with the white walls of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, these vibrant magenta, red, and golden blooms impart a stunning contrast.

Thanks to Virginia’s vision and love of gardens, we can still enjoy the romantic beauty of this glorious plant that announces springtime and summer at Robinson Gardens.

Photograph by Superintendent Timothy Lindsay

Post by Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member

  1. Leslie Tillmann
    | Reply

    Probably my favorite plant at Robinson Gardens. It is magnificent!! Thanks for a great article.

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