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The story of the bougainvillea has everything necessary for a blockbuster book (paperback and movie rights pending) _ adventure, sex, violence, intrigue, mistaken identity, kidnapping and possibly even a secret shipboard romance.

The bougainvillea genus is named for Louis de Bougainville, an 18th century prodigy of the arts and sciences. Bougainville _ a diplomat, soldier, navigator, explorer, linguist and mathematical genius _ was given a commission by the French king to circumnavigate the globe to discover unexplored territory for France.

On board was Philibert Commerson, a renowned botanist of the day with such a frenzied enthusiasm for searching out unknown plants _ and taking dramatic chances with his own life in the process _ that one historian called him a "brilliant, but apparently lunatic plant hunter."

Journals of the voyage include accounts of the usual hazards of 18th century sea travel. The crew encountered dangerous weather and shipboard disease. In Tahiti, Commerson and the ship's crew were distracted from their duties by local customs that featured outdoor feasts, dances and public lovemaking. They also recorded incidents of human sacrifice.

Later in the voyage, Commerson's young botanical assistant, Jean Baret, was kidnapped by a tribal chieftain in the New Hebrides. A party of seamen came to the young man's rescue, but in the process of freeing him they discovered that the assistant was actually a woman disguised as a young man. It isn't clear whether Commerson knew the identity of his assistant and these two had more than a scholar-apprentice relationship, or if he also had been fooled. Journals of the time were prudishly edited for content.

Amid the adventure and intrigue, Commerson was also collecting, pressing and listing thousands of plants. In Brazil he discovered the brilliantly colored shrub later named bougainvillea in honor of the ship's captain.

The bougainvillea, as flamboyant as the story of its original discovery, is a plant that often must be discovered and rediscovered by individual gardeners.

For years I had only one bougainvillea in my yard. The gnarled old vine drapes over a perimeter fence like an armed guard. The bright magenta blooms are lush and lovely in the winter and spring, but I had no interest in adding any more bougainvilleas in years past. They were too big, too thorny, too gaudy.

Then, about a year ago, I added another bougainvillea to my garden. It wasn't too big _ in fact, it was fine in a medium-sized container. It wasn't too thorny; it was a new thornless cultivar. And far from being gaudy, it was pale lavender.

And now, as I look around my deck and garden, I count a half-dozen other bougainvillea cultivars. A few are in hanging baskets, one is a small bonsai-like miniature, several are in large clay pots on the patio. At the first sign of a recent cold snap, I rushed out to the patio to bring in a small pot holding my newest bougainvillea addition, Orange Stripe, a new cultivar with variegated leaves and orange flowers.

And so it was that I "discovered" bougainvilleas. During this awakening process, I've learned that they are multi-faceted plants that can fit into any size garden and blend into any color scheme.

"Most people are afraid of them because of the thorn and size they can get to," said John Lucas, a bougainvillea grower in Pembroke Park. Lucas went on to explain that of the 300 or so hybrids that have been created from the species, there are many cultivars with various growth habits, including dwarf varieties. Lucas grows about 150 or so of the known cultivars at his nursery, Tradewinds South, which is also the home base of the American Bougainvillea Society.

"Some of the big ones go crazy," Lucas said, "but you can find cultivars that are easier to control." Wild and sprawling older cultivars include Camarillo Fiesta and Scarlett O'Hara.

The bougainvillea is in the Nyctaginaceae family, characterized by plants that have small flowers surrounded by a cluster of showy bracts. They are large woody climbers from the dry-winter tropical areas of South America. The colorful part of the bougainvillea is a bract, not a petal. The flower itself is a small, inconspicuous white or yellow tubular structure in the center of the cluster of bracts.

The two species of bougainvillea that have been used by plant breeders to develop new cultivars are B. glabra and B. spectabilis, both natives of Brazil.

Older garden reference books describe the form of bougainvilleas as "sprawling and rampant." Many of the newer cultivars, however, are more compact and free blooming, even during summer months when older varieties are sparse of bloom. In general, bougainvilleas don't have aggressive root systems, making them adaptable to growing in containers on a sunny patio or courtyard. Some of the new cultivars are especially suited for container growing.

Bougainvilleas benefit from pruning, since the blooms develop on new growth. Pruning and pinching create more branches, and the more branches, the more blooms. "Most hybrids today bloom any time you cut and feed them," Lucas said.

Some of the more compact cultivars that grow 3 to 4 feet are the fuchsia Helen Johnson; Rosenka, which has bracts from pinky-orange-gold to pinky-cerise; and Poultonii, a hot red-pink. Dwarf cultivars include the bright Pink Pixie, which is thornless and often used as a bonsai.

Lucas said his nursery will introduce several dwarf cultivars this year. One, called Imperial Thai Delight, opens white and turns shades of pink, giving an apple-blossom effect.

Double flowered bougainvilleas include Pagoda Pink and Thai Gold; some with variegated foliage are Red September, Scarlet Queen Variegata and Orange Stripe.

The colors of bougainvillea range from deep, clear reds, purple and cerise to white. The oranges range from tangerine to burnt umber. There are bicolors of white and pink or white and purple and blends that are almost impossible to pin down because the color changes as the bracts mature. Some of the oranges, for example, start out orange and turn pink as they age. Or a cluster of bracts will have distinctly different colors of orange and pink, but looking at the bush from a distance, the eye combines the colors and you think you are seeing a salmon-colored flower.

The intense sunlight in a subtropical garden can handle _ even demand _ the brilliant colors of plants like bougainvillea. Even the most startling colors are tamed and harmonized by Florida sunlight. But if one is looking for softer hues, bougainvilleas also offer pale mauves, white, soft pinks and bicolors of soft orange-pink or pink and white.

While most bougainvilleas are characterized by thorny stems, two thornless cultivars with exceptionally large bracts were introduced by Lucas' nursery and have become very popular. Silhouette is lavender and Miss Alice is white. These cultivars came from Singapore and are the most tropical of all bougainvilleas, Lucas said.

Like all bougainvilleas, the thornless cultivars love hot weather and demand full sun to bloom at their best. They need regular doses of fertilizer, and seem to require a little more water than most bougainvilleas, he said.

Bougainvilleas are showing off at their best now. Like poinsettias, Christmas cactus and other plants that are sensitive to changes in day length, this vine reacts to the shorter days of winter by blooming profusely during these months. They also like the drier weather.

Historical information from The Plant Hunters by Tyler Whittle, P.A.J. Publications, was used in this report.


Poor flowering _ Possibly too little sun or lack of nutrients.

Yellow leaves _ Chlorosis (yellowing) may indicate iron and magnesium deficiency. Check fertilizer to see that it includes these elements. Heavy rains wash away fertilizer and may cause nutrient deficiencies.

Leaf or flower drop _ May be improper drainage. In containers, check to see that there are adequate drainage holes.

Leaf spot _ Small, reddish, rounded spots on leaves may be bacterial or fungal infection caused by prolonged wet conditions. Reduce crowding between plants to promote air flow; don't use overhead watering in late afternoon. Remove dead leaves to prevent spread of disease. Fungicide may be applied if the problem is persistent.

Source: Growing Bougainvilleas by Jan Iredell, Simon & Schuster, 1994