Along many Naples' roadsides, planted in shopping center planters, and even growing here in the Garden lives a shrub the average person has a hard time pronouncing.
Bougainvillea (boo-gan-VIL-lee-uh) (Bougainvillea glabra) is as much of a mouthful as it is abundant in Naples’ landscaping. Not only is it a 13-letter word and possibly embarrassing to say, bougainvillea is also a commonly misunderstood plant.
The first thing you may notice about this plant is its striking color. You may have seen it used as a shrub or even climbing trellises, but what sets it apart from the typical green curbside plant is that there seem to be more flowers than leaves because the plant just drowns in color. From red, to pink, to purple, to yellow, and to white, this plant has a variety of appearances. But wait! Those papery-looking flowers aren’t actually flowers at all! Just like the poinsettias you get during winter break, those colorful things are bracts, or specialized leaves at the base of the flower. Although bracts are in fact leaves, unlike their green brothers, they do not typically photosynthesize and are usually involved with attracting pollinators or protecting the young buds. The true flowers of the bougainvillea got the short end of the stick; if you look closely, you will find three little trumpet-shaped cream flowers arranged in a triangle and surrounded by three showy bracts. Typically, you’ll find two true flowers blooming at a time and the third will be a bud taking its sweet time to bloom. Since the bracts are far more noticeable than the flowers, bougainvilleas provide color for much of the year!
It is hard being a plant in Florida: not only is the soil sandy and nutrient-deficient, we often experience droughts. Lucky for the bougainvillea, it is quite drought tolerant and does just fine growing in nutrient poor soil – two features which make it ideal for landscaping here. So, next time you’re driving down one of Naples’ bougainvillea-lined roads, you can impress your companions by letting them know what those flashy papery parts of the bougainvillea really are.