Ever Green

By Lois Taylor

Friday, September 3, 1999

File photo
While the purple bougainvillea is the type "discovered"
by Louis Antoine de Bougainville in the 1760s, and is the
most common in Hawaii, other varieties, pink, lavender,
rose and golden yellow, are also popular.

Explorer’s legacy in bloom

THE answer is, "They are remembered more for the flowers named for them than for what they actually accomplished in their lives." The question is, "What do Louis Antoine de Bougainville, William Cattley and Joel Poinsett have in common?" The flowers, of course, are the bougainvillea, the cattleya orchid and the poinsettia.

Cattley was a wealthy Englishman who collected and grew rare plants and Poinsett was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, both in the early 19th century.

But the most interesting of the trio is de Bougainville, who had already exhausted one career as a mathematician and another as a lawyer before he became an officer in the French army at the age of 27. He was sent to America in 1756 as an aide to Gen. Montcalm fighting the British at Ticonderoga, in the French and Indian War. He was wounded, the French were defeated, and that ended his third career.

Undaunted, de Bougainville returned to France, joined the French navy, and overnight the former army officer became a naval commander in charge of a two-vessel expedition bound for the South Seas. This was a time of a fascination with science in France, and de Bougainville's mission was to "study the land, the trees and the principal products" of the South Seas islands and "bring back samples and drawings of everything that merits attention."

So off he went, adding to the expedition the naturalist Philibert de Commerson and his young valet. Hardly any naturalists now travel with their valet, in fact many don't comb their hair. Anyway, the valet Jean Baret lugged the botanist's equipment around the South Pacific and shared his cabin.

By the time the expedition reached the New Hebrides, de Bougainville was suspicious, and when quizzed by the commander the valet confessed that she was actually Jeanne Baret, mistress of de Commerson. "Zut alors," said the commander and in a decidedly un-French move insisted that they thereafter use separate cabins. Whether or not they did, is not recorded, but history does recognize Jeanne Baret as the first woman to sail around the world.

It was on the expedition's stop in Rio de Janeiro that de Commerson discovered the native Brazilian woody vine with its masses of vivid color and named it after his commander. The journey ended in St. Malo on March 16, 1769, and was the first French circumnavigation of the world.

BOUGAINVILLEA soon became the most widely grown of tropical vines because it blooms throughout the year and is tolerant of dry and rocky growing conditions. The bougainvilleas' vibrant colors come from the three large bracts that surround the inconspicuous little flowers. Although once established, bougainvilleas will put up with shabby treatment, they need careful planting.

They should be planted in direct sun, taking care not to disturb the roots. Bougainvillea roots don't knit the soil together in a firm root ball, and if the plant is not treated gently, it will die. Soak the plant well before beginning the procedure, and work in the shade.

If the plant is in a plastic container, cut out the bottom, place the container in the planting hole and carefully cut the container from top to bottom and remove the sides before filling in the hole with soil. If it is in a can, poke eight or 10 holes in the sides and the bottom before setting it in the hole. Fill in the soil -- the can will rust and decay. Water deeply until it sets out new growth.

The young plant grows well on a trellis or against a wall or as a large shrub with spreading and drooping branches. It can cover a whole hillside and choke out weed growth, as it has on the slopes above Kalanianaole Highway by Niu and Kuliouou. It will survive in poor, impacted soil, while overly rich soil will promote luxuriant foliage at the expense of the flower formation.

To encourage flowering, keep watering to a minimum, and heavy pruning will keep bougainvillea growth within bounds. Keep suckers pruned back and long branches removed to maintain shape, but be careful of the sharp thorns while doing this.

Bougainvillea, once established, can stand neglect, but it will benefit from applications of general garden fertilizer once a year. Work the fertilizer into the soil around the plant, and then water well.

The species de Commerson discovered in Rio is Bougainvillea spectabilis, with purple flowers, and is the one most commonly seen here. Varieties include those with pink, lavender, rose or golden yellow bracts. And for all of these we have de Bougainville to thank. A confirmed royalist, he narrowly escaped the guillotine during the French Revolution, and was later an adviser to Napoleon. In his old age, he was questioned about his explorations, and he pointed out the plant that de Commerson had named for him. He said, "Well, I am also placing hope for my reputation in a flower." And that's how it turned out.

Do It Electric!

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