Oliver Thornwhistle On Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea Sampler (photo Rudy Girón/AntiguaDailyPhoto.Com)

Bougainvillea Sampler (photo Rudy Girón/AntiguaDailyPhoto.Com)

written by S.C. Johnson

Sometime, before my time, I believe it was in the 1930s when minds were preoccupied with the Great Depression, everybody had to have a national or a state flower. Now mostly, nobody even knows what they are. I was at a British pub quiz night recently and our Swedish team member had no idea what the Swedish national flower happens to be.

In Guatemala the national flower is the monja blanca, a delicate orchid that will never see the light of day in La Antigua Guatemala’s fine plant nurseries (too hot and illegal, too). So, in my opinion, I think the monja blanca’s time has come and gone and it should be replaced.

A national flower should be national in distribution. The monja blanca, confined to a few isolated mosslands is not. A national flower should be easily recognizable, especially by children, the future. Let’s face it, if a monja blanca knocked on your door, you wouldn’t recognize it. “Hello, who are you?”

Enter my candidate for the new national flower, the instantly recognizable and ubiquitous-in-Guatemala bougainvillea. No shrinking violet, the bougainvillea evokes the term my mother used for it every morning, the “wow!” flower. If one knocks on your door, you will say, “Wow! It’s bougainvillea!”

And bougainvillea has some special attributes that endear it. We have all looked up, and up and up and up, and seen bougainvillea growing high in other trees. How did it get 60, 70, 100 feet up? Since it has no tendrils with which to grasp, bougainvillea must grow out and flop over a nearby branch, ever higher and higher. A true triumph of perseverance.

Not only does bougainvillea achieve the seemingly impossible by climbing without tendrils, it is easy to start and can easily grow 10 meters in a season. There is no better flower to show a child how to start a plant, which can become a lifelong love. Simply cut a 10- to 14-inch piece, not too green, and stick it in sunny, moist ground, thorns pointing down. Within a few weeks buds will appear on the stem and your new bougainvillea is off to the races.

Bougainvillea makes an impenetrable barrier against intruders, although birds flit in and out to their nests, safe from cats, weasels or other predators.

What you think is a flower is the showy bract, with the tiny real flower in the center. Just follow the hummingbirds.

Build a bower of bougainvillea, the sunlight filtering through the bracts is truly ethereal.

Where can you find bougainvillea? You can “borrow,” with permission of course, cuttings from a neighbor. Guatemala’s spectacular plant nurseries always have bougainvillea available.

Up over the hill from Guatemala’s colonial capital or down the Pacific road from Guatemala City, about 16 kilometers from each, is the national agricultural university at Barcenas. Rows and rows of flowers and other plants are available for sale, including mature bougainvillea. Barcenas is a national treasure, free to enter and a fantasyland for plant enthusiasts.

Here is my bougainvillea dream. There are over 200 classified colors of bougainvillea. My prior favorite was San Diego Red, until a beautiful English blonde from York, near Carlisle of course, bought me a beautiful yellow bougainvillea in Oaxaca. I dream of someone reading this paean to the new national flower, discovering a new shade and classifying it as La Antigua Amarillo, propagating it and making it world famous.

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