The abundant and beautiful bougainvillea plant, native to the coast of Brazil, has spread around the world, mutating and cross-breeding to the point where horticulturists are baffled as to how many bougainvillea cultivars or varieties exist and what their names are.

Dr Philibert Commerson, a French naturalist who discovered the Bougainvillea in Rio de Janeiro, was the first to document it. He named the magnificent plant after his friend and fellow traveller, Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who was sailing around the world on behalf of the French government aboard the ship La Boudeuse on a voyage of discovery.

The Admiral gained not only horticultural notoriety in Rio. He also discovered French Polynesia and named Bougainville Reef in Australia and Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea.


Because they are hardy and attractive, bougainvilleas were quickly imported to other tropical and warm countries, now familiar, from Spain to China, Hawaii to Australia.

The bougainvillea flower (what we see as the colourful papery flower is the bract that encases the rather uninteresting natural flower) is the official flower of three cities in California, USA; four cities in Guangdong Province, China; a city and a province in the Philippines; and a city in Okinawa, Japan. The bougainvillea is also the official flower of the islands of Grenada and Guam.

To return to the bougainvillea’s history, it was listed as “Buginvillea” in A.L. de Jusseau’s botanically renowned “Genera Plantarum” in 1789.

However, the incorrect spelling persisted until it was corrected in the Index Kewensis (the reference work for flowering plants published by the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew) in the 1930s.

In the nineteenth century, B. spectabilis and B. glabra was the first bougainvillea species to arrive in Europe. It wasn’t long before they were spreading to the colonies and Australia.

There was quite a commotion among bougainvillea enthusiasts shortly after this species became well-known in Europe.

Mrs R.V. Butt claimed to have discovered a rare crimson red bougainvillea in her garden in Cartagena, Spain. This was excitedly named B. buttiana in honour of the lady, but it was later discovered to be a natural hybrid of the B.glabra and B.peruviana species, native to Peru.

By the 1930s, it was clear that bougainvilleas were very good at producing spontaneous natural hybrids, with the species crossing and growing the 300-odd varieties we have today, with their wide range of gorgeous colours.

But, on the other hand, botanists have traced the majority of today’s diverse bougainvillea back to only three of the original eighteen South American species identified.

To appreciate the beauty of this hardy and vibrant plant that has managed to conquer the world, you don’t have to be a student of bougainvillea history or be concerned about the confusion surrounding the genesis of modern-day hybrids.

Leave a Reply