Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bougainvillea: Tropical beauty in the Desert

From a naturalist’s perspective, one of the most striking things about the Phoenix suburbs is the lush green diversity of plants that thrive in our neighborhoods and parks. Compared with the surrounding desert, where plants depend on scanty seasonal precipitation, the suburban climate is subtropical, enhanced by irrigation and elevated humidity. Added to this, we have introduced hundreds of plant species from all over the world for our personal pleasure and agriculture: citrus fruits and roses from China, olives and rosemary from the Middle East, eucalyptus from Australia and aloes from Africa.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic flowering plants that grace the corridors of the Phoenix metro area is Bougainvillea, a tropical shrub introduced from rain forests of South America. In their native habitats, these sun-loving vines sprawl and climb over other shrubs and trees. Here they are usually planted and pruned to behave as shrubs or grown on walls and trellises. Enterprising horticulturalists have hybridized the fourteen native species in every possible combination to create over three hundred varieties that are now dispersed all over the planet. There is even a website called where you can order any color of the sunrise to grace your personal garden space. Beware, however, the flesh-ripping thorns that hide beneath the evergreen foliage! Fortunately, there are thornless options, but the most brilliant magenta Bougainvillea’s are inevitably the most fiercely armed.

These plants were named after Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who is well regarded in his homeland as the first Frenchman to lead a sailing expedition around the world between 1766 and 1769. In addition to having a spectacular tropical plant named in his honor, the admiral’s legacy includes several south Pacific islands, ports and straights, plus thirteen ships in the French navy that have celebrated his prestige on their transom. The circumnavigation was also historic for being the first to include professional naturalists, as well as the first woman known to sail around the world, as members of the ships’ crew. Historians still question the strange liaison between the expedition’s botanist, Philibert Commercon, and his valet, Jeanne Bare. The petite valet’s true identity as a woman was supposedly not known until the ships landed in Tahiti, where perceptive natives instantly recognized him as a her. Bougainville’s travelogue, Voyage Autour du Monde (Journey Around the World), was influential to philosophers and artists of the time who transformed his descriptions of Tahitian society into iconic images of the Noble Savage.

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