It should come as no surprise that, because Charleston oozes with history, gardeners from “off”—the local vernacular for people who aren’t from here—want to know about our horticultural heritage. After all, gardenia is named for former Charleston resident Dr. Alexander Garden (1755), while our signature cultivar, the Noisette rose (c.1800), still graces many of Charleston’s ancestral gardens.
But we also grow a luxuriant vine here that, although its genus has no discernible connection to Charleston’s bygone days, it nonetheless has an almost unbelievable history. One must understand the politics of 18th-century botanical nomenclature in order to fully appreciate this remarkable story. Back then, getting a plant named after you was a colossal ego trip because it guaranteed status and notoriety. And not only was the selection process scientifically challenging, it was often contentious. As a result, quibbling ended friendships but, in one particular instance, it saved a life.
Bougainvillea spp.—a subtropical flowering vine that sometimes grows into a shrub—was named for Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729 – 1811), who was the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe during a three-year voyage in the mid-1700s. Although the flagship’s botanist, Philibert Commerson, was the first to describe this plant in scientific literature, he is incorrectly credited for its discovery. It was his assistant, an herbalist named Jeanne Baret, who found it growing in the hills near Rio de Janeiro and carried it back on board. Baret, a peasant woman who knew much more about botany than Commerson, had agreed to disguise herself as a man to sail with him and 300 other men around the world. Never mind that the life expectancy of a female found aboard an 18th-century sailing vessel was extremely short. After two years at sea, and while anchored off Tahiti, the island’s inhabitants discovered her identity. In an attempt to wiggle out of this dangerous situation, Commerson assured the admiral that his name would live on in botanical perpetuity if he spared Baret’s life and protected her from Bougainville’s angry, not to mention lascivious, sailors.
Baret eventually made it back to France and lived an otherwise uneventful life. And every spring, when her discovery reappears in Lowcountry garden centers and dazzles me with mesmerizingly colorful bracts that nod in the wind, I think of her and her remarkable adventure.
Commerson named Baret’s vine B. brasiliensis (now commonly called B. spectabilis), which displays riots of neon-hued purple bracts. However, thanks to determined plant breeders, bougainvillea bract colors now vary from yellow and orange to creamy white, baby pink and magenta. But no matter the tint or variety—there are approximately 14 species of bougainvillea and all of them come from South America—every threebract cluster always encircles a trio of tiny buds that eventually open into diminutive one-eyed white flowers. Although difficult to find, there are also doubleruffled bract versions that are so frilly they nearly hide the delicate flowers.
Bougainvillea loves being pot-bound, which makes it easy to coax one into becoming an attractive patio plant, either spilling out from a hanging container or trained into a topiary. Standard cultivars reach 10 to 15 feet in height and about 8-feet wide, which means that you can turn this equatorial plant loose in a summertime landscape. And if you’re stuck with a boring shrub that sits in full sun, camouflage it by allowing this lush evergreen vine to grow over it. For less rambunctious projects, however, smaller versions are available. A genetic dwarf named ‘Sunvillea’ is not as vigorous. Its canes reach only 2 to 3 feet in length and have an overall spread of 3 to 6 inches. This means that you can commingle it with other plants in beds and borders, or even use it as a ground cover.
Here’s the bad news about bougainvillea: It’s designated USDA Hardy in zones 9a – 11 and, with the exception of a few areas on peninsular Charleston that are in zone 9a, most of us garden in zone 8b. Although bougainvillea sometimes survives coastal Carolina winters, especially if planted in the ground in a protected area, many were still lost during the icy winter of 2014. Even commercial growers suffered from that winter’s horticultural indignities, which made bougainvillea difficult to find last spring.
Hauling containerized plants indoors during winter is always a solution, but many gardeners treat potted bougainvillea as an annual because its thorns, located near the base of each leaf, make it an annoying houseguest.
Although bougainvillea blooms profusely in full sun, it balks when left in shade. It is both drought-and salt-tolerant and deadheading is not necessary. Bougainvillea prefers no fertilizer while blooming. Instead, feed it lightly in late summer or early fall after flowering has stopped and its leaves have lost some of their brilliance.
PJ Gartin is a full-time freelance writer who lives in Charleston.