pierre laszlo

Bougainvillea spectabilis Wild (Nyctaginaceae)

We owe these highly colored flowers to an even more colorful lady, Jeanne Barret (1740-1807). After his wife died, Philibert Commerson (1727-1793), a physician and botanist, hired Jeanne Barret to run his household. She came to him from her native Burgundy. Commerson was appointed on-board surgeon and naturalist by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811), who led from 1766 to 1769 a French expedition of circumnavigation around the planet with two ships, the Boudeuse and the Etoile. For reference, James Cook first voyage, comparable to Bougainville’s, occurred from 1768 to 1771.

Explorations were then the exclusive dominion of men. Posing as a man and as Commerson’s valet, Jeanne Barret embarked together with Commerson on the fluyt (or flute) L’Etoile, a military cargo ship. She was not discovered as the woman she was until the expedition reached Tahiti in 1768, two years after leaving France. In the meanwhile, she had trained herself as a gifted botanist, the equal to Commerson.

Bougainville, who tolerated to some extent her presence onboard, expelled both and left them at Ile de France (Mauritius today) in November 1768. Commerson would die there, while Jeanne Barret made her way back to France — together with the botanical specimens they had collected together, amounting to no fewer than 34 crates.

To return to Bougainvillea, L’Etoile joined Bougainville’s Boudeuse in Rio de Janeiro, in 1767. There, Barret and Commerson culled South American plants, including the species they subsequently named Bougainvillea in honor of the expedition leader.

They were especially admirative of this showy creeper with the flamboyant flowers. The plant had received various names in Brazilian Portuguese such as primavera, três-marias, sempre-lustrosa, santa-rita, ceboleiro, roseiro, roseta, riso, pataguinha, pau-de-roseira and flor-de-papel. The sample collected by Barret and Commerson is preserved to this day in the national French herbal at Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris

Bougainvillea flowers owe their magnificence, not to petals or sepals, but to the brightly colored bracts. The water-soluble pigments responsible for the colors are alkaloids, i.e., nitrogen-containing molecules, known as betalain and betalin — also present in purple beetroots.

These pigments are currently being applied to design and manufacture of solar cells, to harvest sunlight and turn it into electricity.

Finally, I dedicate this piece to my wife Valerie : not only has she edited my text for every single piece of this series, Bougainvillea are her favorite flowers.