white bougainvillea

There are some rip-roaring stories behind some of the plants on my street. Take bougainvillea, now in bloom all over town, the scarlet wallpaper to my daily travels.
My favorite bougainvillea at the moment, however, is this white one just a few houses down the street, threaded through a Night-Blooming Cereus.

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Named for Louis Antoine de Bougainville, on whose 18th century circumnavigation voyage the vine was discovered in South America, it was more than likely first discovered by a young female stowaway named Jeanne Bare (sometimes Baret), who disguised herself as a sailor boy to join her lover, the naturalist Phillbert Commerson. Commerson is generally accredited with the actual discovery, but his illness during the voyage makes this attribution very unlikely, as it was Bare who was sent ashore to gather specimens. Bare is considered to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, not bad for a girl from a peasant family of Burgundy, whose means of acquiring an education in 18th century France still remains a mystery.

Commerson was officially confined to the ship while his leg healed, but he and Baret nonetheless collected specimens of a flowering vine which he named Bougainvillea.” — Jeanne Bare

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According to some historians, we have Baret alone to thank for one of their most famous discoveries: bougainvillea, a plant prized for its vibrant flowers that now blooms in warm climates around the globe. Suffering from incapacitating leg ulcers in Rio de Janeiro in 1767, Commerson is unlikely to have traipsed through the Brazilian countryside collecting the specimen he ultimately named for the expedition’s commander. Instead, his right-hand “man” might have gathered the seeds that introduced bougainvillea to Europe and germinated a worldwide vogue. In her 2010 book “The Discovery of Jeanne Baret,” British historian Glynis Ridley further posits that Baret’s knowledge of herbal remedies attracted her to the bright blossoms, since colorful leaves and flowers were considered therapeutic at the time.”
“First Woman to Circle the Globe Honored at Last.”

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Jeanne’s true gender was later exposed at some point on the voyage.
It is thought that the Tahitians outed her, instantly sensing that this was not just another sailor boy visiting their island.

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Bougainvillea, named for a French Admiral, but really the botanical love child of a feisty French girl and the naturalist who initially employed her as a housekeeper.

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In one plant’s name there’s enough history, science, and politics to keep these boys busy at school for a week.

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9 Responses to white bougainvillea

  1. Kris P says:

    I seldom see white Bougainvillea – this one fits in well with Cereus. I’m more intrigued still by the book about Baret, which I’ve added to my ever-lengthening book list.

  2. rusty duck says:

    Ooh yes, the white one is lovely. And what a fascinating story behind it.

  3. Luisa says:

    That bougainvillea on its own is a beaut, and trysting and twining through the branches of that cereus, ay ay ay. Going to read more about the splendid Jeanne Bare and share her history along with her plant’s history with students. Thanks for this!

  4. Denise says:

    @Kris, I don’t know how much more of this boug the cactus can take. There’s another cereus adjacent, boug-free, that blooms a lot more freely, alas always at night.
    @RD, I was on a tall ship once, and even though I’d been on lots of boats before I still became quite ill, as did much of the crew in those conditions. Down side of adventure!
    @Luisa, right? And this boug/cactus tryst is just one of those happy accidents. I doubt there’s been irrigation to this part of the yard all summer.

  5. What fun a walk with you through the neighborhood would be!

  6. Christina says:

    Very interesting post about the discovery of bougainvilleas! The white specimen that is growing in your neighborhood is spectacular. I am thinking for quite a while now to replace my white Iceberg roses in front of the house with white bougainvilleas, because of the drought and related water restriction that we are having. Seeing your photos is certainly supporting that thought :-)!

  7. Denise says:

    @Loree, I remember how Andrew wanted to walk to the temple. I just noticed that the arbutus planted in the pocket part adjacent to the temple have made it through summer, newly in the ground the past couple years, so that’s a relief.
    @Christina, that’s an interesting thought, to let a boug loose where roses once grew. It would be an entirely different mood. Looking forward to your choice!

  8. hoov says:

    The off-colored (not red or violet) Bougies are less vigorous, a great virtue. The Cereus is just as impressive.

    So many women out there doing amazing things, unknown and obscure, while the Kardashians are worshiped and pelted with money.

  9. Les says:

    I had no idea, the story behind bougainvillea. I see photos of it draping houses in the Caribbean, and I think could like that. Then I think it might be like Asian wisteria is here, more beautiful choking someone else’s house and trees to death, than your own.

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