The Thorny Bougainvillea

The beautiful-but-thorny bougainvillea is ubiquitous throughout the Southwest, so much so that I almost never notice them. The bright “bracts” (specialized colored leaves) surround and visually overwhelm tiny flowers that are so small as to require magnification to fully appreciate.

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The always-hard-to-spell (at least for me) name derives from French Navy admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, first Frenchman to circumnavigate the Earth, and later a hero of the American Revolution.

During Bougainville’s voyage, the admiral’s botanist, Philibert Commerçon, bestowed Bougainville’s name on a South American vine that was noted by Jeanne Baré, who was Commerçon’s assistant (and probably mistress).

Woman were not allowed on French warships at that time. So, Baré had disguised herself as a man in order to make the voyage. In doing so, she became the first woman to circumnavigate the Earth. And while the beautiful flower was named for the admiral, he has to take credit for the thorns, too.


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