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Quartz Obsession — Bougainvillea — Card 1
Is there anything more quintessentially Mediterranean than the view of a bushy bougainvillea covering a veranda, bright against the blue sky, or sea? But then again, is there anything more quintessentially tropical than the splash of bright pink against the lush background of Goa—or is that the Kenyan coastline? They grow in Hawaii and the Caribbean, in Provence and the Amalfi Coast, in Brazil and Florida—bougainvilleas are the ultimate proxy of Instagram-worthy beach life.
We may associate invasions with ugly battles and strife, but the most influential form of power is soft, pretty, and sometimes pink. Case in point: the bright, bushy, distillation of summer that is the bougainvillea, an invasive species in most of the world, but one so attractive many of the lands it colonized ended up associating their identities with it.
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Quartz Obsession — Bougainvillea — Card 2
14: Species of bougainvillea
250: Approximate number of bougainvillea varieties commercially available
30 m (100 ft): Maximum length of a bougainvillea stem
2: Species of bougainvillea, Bougainvillea glabra and Bougainvillea spectabilis that were inbred to create most of the currently available varieties
207,000: Population of the country of Bougainville, which became independent from Papua New Guinea in 2019
30°F (-1°C): Lowest temperature withstood by bougainvilleas
5: Minimum hours of daily full sun required by bougainvilleas to keep their bright appearance
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Quartz Obsession — Bougainvillea — Card 3
The bougainvillea is the national flower of the Caribbean country of Grenada, and it is featured on its coat of arms. It is also the official flower of the US territory of Guam, and the flower of several cities and territories around the world, including in Taiwan, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, California, and Japan. The flower is not native to any of them.
Bougainvilleas come from South America, and were recorded by European botanists Philibert Commerçon and Jeanne Baret for the first time in Brazil in 1768, while onboard an expedition led by Louis Antoine de Bougainville. When Bougainville returned to the French port of Saint-Malo, so did Commerçon, Baret, and their discovery of the bougainvillea; the plant was introduced in Europe early in the 19th century, and became part of the lively plant trade that was happening between nurseries in France and Britain.
It was officially classified by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu in his 1789 Genera Plantarum, with the spelling “Buginvillæa”—later changed to bougainvillea in the Kew Index. And it is from Kew Gardens in London, where the Index was compiled, that the bougainvillea started on its path to world garden domination.
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Quartz Obsession — Bougainvillea — Card 4
“Those are my Bougainvillea—I got Victoria to plant them today, but I don’t know if they will survive. But right now they have the appearance of survival, which is almost the same thing.”
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Quartz Obsession — Bougainvillea — Card 5
Like many other plants, bougainvilleas were spread through the world as part of a global exchange: Seeds and cuttings were brought to London’s Kew Gardens in the 18th and 19th centuries, propagated and grown in its greenhouses, and then sent off to other locations within the British Empire, eventually reaching South Asia, East Africa, and other lands with the tropical climate they prefer.
Marc Hachadourian, the director of glasshouse horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, notes that bougainvilleas share a similar colonial history with other very beloved plants. Usefulness, as with rubber; deliciousness, like tomatoes and eggplants; and beauty, in the case of bougainvilleas and hibiscus, helped some plants spread across the globe.
Provided the climate is appropriate, bougainvilleas are durable, fast-spreading, and bright, the perfect combination to make them a successful invader. It’s also thorny, though many modern cultivars have been bred to be thorn-free, and somewhat hard to tame. Compared to other invasive species it’s relatively harmless—its toxicity, for instance, is low—but it can replace less vigorous, indigenous species, leading to depletion of biodiversity. Most of all it’s a visual, and botanical, reminder of political and human colonization. But because of its good looks, locals have historically been unlikely to mind.
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Quartz Obsession — Bougainvillea — Card 7
What looks like a flower, pinks like a flower, but is actually a leaf? A bract. The splashes of colors typical on bougainvillea bushes—magenta, pink, purple, orange, yellow, white—are actually leaves, not flowers.
Bracts are modified leaves that have turned color, surrounding the plant’s actual flower. In bougainvilleas, for instance, the colorful triangular bracts surround the plant’s tiny light-colored flowers, which vary in color from white to cream. Bougainvilleas have “perfect flowers,” botanically speaking, because they contain both pistil (female structure) and stamen (male structure). Poinsettias are another example—they have tiny light-colored flowers at the center of their large red, white, or green bracts.
Typically, bracts are far brighter and larger than the plant’s actual flower, and Hachadourian says their job is essentially to be very pretty: Like flower petals, they are one of the tricks devised by plants to be as attractive as possible to insects for pollination purposes, and it happens to work on humans as well.
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Quartz Obsession — Bougainvillea — Card 8
If you like traveling flowers, you might also like the Flower Travellin’ Band, a cult-favorite Japanese psychedelic band started by singer/producer Yuya Uchida, after a gig opening for John Lennon led to him hearing Jimi Hendrix and Cream. This video is from their 2008 reunion.
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Quartz Obsession — Bougainvillea — Card 9
The first European botanist to observe bougainvilleas was likely Jeanne Baret, who was also the first woman to circumnavigate the world. Baret was born in Burgundy, France, in a poor family, in 1740. In 1766, Baret followed Philibert Commerçon, her partner and a botanist, on a ship expedition around the world with Louis Antoine de Bougainville.
Since women were not allowed to join such journeys, Baret disguised herself as a man, and was taken on as an assistant to Commerçon. As Commerçon had a stubborn leg injury, she at times went to collect samples of local flora by herself. It is believed that in one such outing she observed a colorful bush which she named after the captain of the voyage: Bougainville.
Rumors about Baret (also known as Baré on the ship) and her gender circulated on board. The official account claims that when she visited Tahiti to collect samples of local plants locals guessed her gender. According to Bougainville’s journal, she confessed to being a woman and said she had disguised her gender out of necessity. “[S]he knew when she came on board that it was a question of circumnavigating the world and that this voyage had excited her curiosity,” the explorer wrote. “She will be the only one of her sex to have done this, and I admire her determination all the more because she has always behaved with the most scrupulous correctness.”
In researching her book The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, however, Glynis Ridley found several other accounts that contradict Bougainville. The diaries of several crew members indicate that Baret’s crewmates discovered that she was a woman, and she was sexually assaulted as a result.
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Quartz Obsession — Bougainvillea — Card 10
Bougainvilleas come in a huge variety of colors and sizes, and many of them have names as colorful as they are.
🌺James Walker: Often described as an “extremely showy” Bougainvillea, it’s a favorite because of its very large magenta bracts.
💃Scarlet O’Hara: Also known as San Diego Red, this is a strong Bougainvillea vine of deep magenta color, very close to actual red. It is one of the most cold-tolerant cultivars.
💮Miss Alice: This dwarf white Bougainvillea is known by many other names, including Moonlight and Singapore White. It is a thornless variety.
🌴Barbara Karst: Barbara Karst (née Hendry) was the daughter of James Hendry, who first selected what is now known as Barbara Karst bougainvillea in his Everglades, Florida nursery, in the 1940s. It is a magenta variety.
🌼Lady Baring: This golden yellow bougainvillea was named after Harriet Mary Baring (née Montagu), a 19th century British socialite.
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