The handsome bougainvillea


MAGENTA, YELLOW, pink, white and red blossoms riot over tree, trellis, pergola, summer house and wall. In April-May walk down past the Cathedral in Shillong towards Dhankheti Point and you are awestruck by the cascading bougainvillea over a towering pine across the busy traffic intersection. In the home of my childhood days, the steps down to the fruit garden were trellised over with every colour of this gorgeous bloom. Against the Nilgiri Hills magenta bougainvillea poured over our summer house under which we had magical alfresco meals. For this trobairitz, nature and nurture have made colour synonymous with the glowing exuberant Bougainvillea.

     The story of how this exotic beauty was named bougainvillea is a fascinating navigation taking history of science beyond colourful artefacts. About two decades before the start of the French Revolution, France had lost colonial possessions and its navy in the Seven Years War and was looking to rebuild its image. It made Louis XVI in 1766 commission Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville to circumnavigate the world (something the French had not yet achieved) and equipped the voyage with professional geographers and naturalists. Bougainville now appointed Commodore, set sail with two ships on 16 November, 1766 and 330 men including a curious stowaway.

     Dr Philibert Commerçon, a naturalist, apparently came aboard with his assistant and lover Jeanne Baré, disguised as a man since women were forbidden on French Naval ships. The stories around the discovery of her real identity are unpleasant and inconsistent. In the same vein it is widely recounted Jeanne Bare apparently became the first woman to circumvent the world and was the plant collector who found the bougainvillea plant. Glynis Ridley breaks down this beguiling story in his book The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe. Be that as it may, Commerçon became the first European to describe these plants collected from South America during their circumnavigation and named it after Commodore Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville. The person after whom this flamboyant bloom was named is no less eye catching; take a look at the photographs on the Wikipedia pages to see what I mean. Handsome is as handsome does; Bougainville had fought successfully in the Seven Years War in Canada, was a French diplomat during the Treaty of Paris, established French settlements in the Falkland Islands, was an explorer, admiral, contemporary to Captain Cook, and graciously lending his name to a flower. A complement the namesake returned by making the name universal.

     ‘Buginvillea’ would be first taxonomically described in Antoine Laurent de Jussieu’s Genera Plantarum in 1789, when the French Revolution began but ‘Bougainvillea’  as we spell it now was adopted in the Index Kewensis  only in the 1930s. The active trade and exchange in plants especially in the 19th century ensured the Bougainvillea migrated all over the globe. Today we have over 300 varieties thanks to human intervention and natural hybridization of the original blooms seen in South America. This climbing shrub lends itself well to trimming, pruning and bonsai making it a versatile ornamental plant and an excellent thorny repellent for pests of all denominations. Every bougainvillea owes its brilliant colour not to petals but to coloured bracts that look like petals and enclose the tiny, inconspicuous but vital flower. Dictionaries tell us bracts are structures forming the chaff on grains like rice and wheat. A perfect structural analogy to for navigating through the chaff (however colourful) and taking us to the kernel of the story.

     The trobairitz adds: When the bougainvillea was collected and named (1769-1789) Jean Baptiste Lamarck of evolution fame was a contemporary of Antoine Laurent de Jussieu at the Natural History Museum in Paris, Warren Hastings became the first Governor General of India and George Washington elected the first president of an independent United States.


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