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Louis-Antoine de Bougainville

Bougainvillea Named for French Admiral and Explorer

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By —— Bio and Archives November 15, 2017

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It is a long way from the wooded shores of the St. Lawrence River west of Quebec City to dense forests of tropical Brazil. There are also vast differences in floral discoveries. They share at least one name though—Bougainvillea.

Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811) was stationed in North America during the Seven Years’ War. As captain of a regiment of dragoons, 1756 found him in Canada. Two years later in in fierce fighting, he was wounded. Unable to intervene in Wolfe’s successful assault on Quebec City in 1759, he was forced to surrender and, with other French officers, shipped back to France. Admired for his leadership abilities he was appointed to lead two ships on a voyage of exploration and discovery around the world 1763-69. Bougainville’s subsequent book, published in 1771, was a sensation.

No less sensational were the discoveries revealed by the official naturalist on the voyage, Philibert Commer√ßon, and his assistant Jean Baret. One of these was a thorny vine from Brazil that was subsequently named (1789) in honour of Commer√ßon’s commander Bougainvillea.

This extraordinary ornamental has been welcomed into tropical and subtropical landscapes. Persons residing in temperate climes are often equally enthusiastic in welcoming container-grown forms into their homes—and perhaps patios and decks during summer months—as a reminder of their southerly sojourns. However as with another popular American introduction, the Poinsettia, the spectacular blooms of Bougainvillea glabra are not flowers at all. Botanically, they are bracts, highly modified leaves. The true flowers are concealed within their gaudy surrounds.

Grown as houseplant, avoid overwatering. Position where they will receive full sun and fertilize regularly. They tend to bloom in cycles and may be grown in hanging baskets or pots if pruned to keep under control. However, be wary of the sap which can cause serious rashes similar to those caused by the all-too-familiar Poison Ivy.

Nevertheless, under warm, frost-free growing conditions, because of this and its thorns it is frequently used in hedges, or clambering along fences, railings and walls to the detriment burglars.

Natural hybrids are known, and the resulting blooms may be pink, magenta, purple, red, orange or even white. Possible the first person to observe the mauve Bougainvillea glabra was Commerçon’s assistant—and, as it turned out later, mistress. She had kept house for him after his young wife died and bore him a son. Disguised as male Jean Baret, she accompanied him on Bougainville’s explorations—illegally as women were banned from onboard French naval ships. Revealed by less inhibited Tahitians when the ships visited their islands, the now Jeanne Baret became the first woman to circumnavigate the world. She continued to botanize ashore for her lover who suffered from ill-health and died in 1773, aged 67.

The Comte de Bougainville, Louis-Antoine, never served ashore or afloat again. He married in 1781, fathered four sons and avoided entanglement in the French Revolution (1789-99). He died 1811 aged 81 full of honours in Paris. His name is also coupled less floriferously as the largest of the Solomon Islands, scene of fierce fighting in World War II.

Bougainvillea is the official flower of numerous cities as well as elsewhere in the Pacific, two Taiwan counties and of Guam. All of which is well worth remembering—although Google probably will not—when we celebrate his birthday this 12 November.


Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.