16 Mar 2014

Go Bougainvillea!

By Jorge Ventocilla

“The flowers have been growing thorns for millions of years. For millions of years the sheep have been eating them just the same. And is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them?”  (T. N.: Translated from the French by Katherine Woods).

The Little Prince asked the above question 71 years ago and, since then, the question has been in the air. Every now and then it does find a possible answer in an open mind and, just like that, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, is born again.

Literature is capable of making these kinds of miracles…miracles just like bougainvillea plants showing their wonderful colors this time of the year.

Bougainvillea plants are ornamental vines, bushes, and trees from the Nyctaginacaeae family and here in Panama they are known as veraneras.  Actually, there are approximately 250 species native to South America, Brazil in particular, but only few of them are used in gardens.

The name of the plant honors Louis Antoine de Bougainville, commissioned by Luis XV for circumnavigating the globe in a scientific sampling and geostrategic (just not to use the “colonial” word) mission.  Naturalist Philibert de Commerçon (sometimes spelled Commerson), was part of Bougainville’s expeditions and was actually the one who found the plant in Rio de Janeiro. He was the one who gave the plant its name, after his boss.

This hardy vine is one of the most popular choices for gardening in areas with tropical and subtropical climates around the world.

There is an interesting detail regarding bougainvillea plants and it is that what we commonly identify as “flowers” are actually bracts (small, modified petal-like leaves). Bracts begin to appear before we are able to see any flowers. The flowers are white, and very small, but gradually turn yellow. They have a trumpet-like appearance and are usually in clusters of three flowers in the center of the bracts. If you look closely, you will find them.

A wide variety of colors gives bracts their distinctive appearance: from orange to deep purple, going through the whole range of pink and red. There are several species of bougainvillea plants, some of them are:  Bougainvillea glabra, with pink-purple bracts; B. sanderiana, dark pink to red; B. spectabilis, pink; and B. variegata and B. harrisii, with bi-colored leaves.

In my opinion, a wider variety of colors can be found in tropical climates. A Chilean botanist told me once that she was delighted with the variety found in Panama because they only had purple bougainvillea in her country.

Indeed, gardeners and growers have also created new varieties through interbreeding in the last decades. Years ago, in 1975, I had the chance to see a group of newly planted bougainvillea plants in Las Bóvedas, San Felipe. Today, these have very thick trunks and their leaves provide shade to both visitors and locals who visit this place to enjoy the colorful walk.

Some of us have learned, the hard way, that bougainvillea plants have spiky thorns. These thorns allow the plant to climb on other plants.  As a typical vine, this plant would go up and up, if left unattended…almost to the point of turning into a pine, as my friend, naturalist Francisco Delgado from Chitré, once told me.

This plant requires bright light and proper watering, without over-watering. Stakes could be used after planting bougainvillea plants. This plant is also a great choice for bonsai enthusiasts.

I would like to congratulate the person in charge of the landscape design around City of Knowledge. It was an excellent idea to plant bougainvillea plants there! We are now able to marvel at the wonderful colors of this plant when we drive or walk by. Just fifteen years ago we had a different kind of feeling when going around that area. Flowers also have the power of helping us make new, pleasant memories!

English translation by Sara I. Melo D.


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