The bougainvillea (Bougainvillea glabra) is in bloom once again. There’s something special about these spring flowers. The autumn outbreak of blossoms brings with it a different symbolism. The spring boungainvillea is more tentative and the branches are a little more vulnerable after the harsh winter. And then, it’s a riot out there. Red or crimson, pink, white, yellow, orange, even a robust lavender.
The bougainvillea is named after the French statesman, mathematician and sailor Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. He encouraged the spirit of discovery and adventure. A botanist in his team found the plant in Brazil in 1768. The discoverers must have been overwhelmed by the many talents of this plant, naturally found in South America, so they named it after the leader of the expedition.
What they liked were the leaves. The flower of the bougainvillea is tubular and white, surrounded by three leaves or bracts. The thorny bougainvillea can grow to be a woody vine and it can also be maintained in trays and troughs. It can be grown on the hedge as a hedge or an arch or allowed to climb up a tree.
Some of the most prolific bougainvillea in Delhi is in Chanakyapuri, in the heart of the city. I recall driving up Sardar Patel Marg, about 15 years ago, towards President’s Estate. To the right were walls and hedges of trained bougainvillea. Neatly maintained, performing their role of being a barricade and natural, thorny barrier and yet, throwing the flowers out in abandon. To the left, skirting the ridge, bursts of untrained colour from bougainvillea left to grow wild, proving to whoever chose to note how hardy this plant is. Unfortunately, some of those houses have now been brought down, and the bougainvillea has gone with them.
If you’re looking for a low-fuss and almost no-fuss plant that suffers few to rare pests such as aphids, needs very little water and rewards your thrift with water with brilliant blooms, choose the bougainvillea. The thorns help the plant claw its way up and when trained on a wall, they keep others from clawing up.
To get more flowers, try pruning the bougainvillea and place the plant in direct sun. In fact, if you overwater, it rewards you with no flowers and may even die, shedding its leaves along the way. Make sure there are nodes for the new shoot to branch out. The cutting can be a little touchy about being transplanted, so plant it in little throwaway glasses. When the plant is ready for a bigger container, lower the entire container into the soil, snip the glass along the length and ease the plant out. Experienced gardeners says you must repot once a year, removing the outer roots.
Too much love and attention can annoy the bougainvillea. Once, I touched the root while weeding. It seemed to me that the injured bougainvillea sulked, threw down all its leaves and looked like deadwood. But an occasional scratch showed me there was life and hope. I carefully tended it and six months later, just when I was beginning to accept defeat, the first leaves appeared. Of course, I’ve never made the same mistake again!
Although bougainvillea is common in large pots, you could try growing them from hanging baskets in well drained soil. The bigger the basket, the better for the plant. The container must get full sun and little water if you want it to flower. Gardeners never forget to tell you that the bougainvillea is a heavy feeder and craves fertilizer. But drive past South Campus in Delhi to see for yourself how it responds to neglect in the wild, with some of the most profuse blooms in town!
But, not everyone likes this plant. One of the most knowledgeable and avid gardeners I know has dozens of plants and flowers but not the bougainvillea. It’s a little too fuss-free, she says. But, what more could novices ask for?