Plate 355  Bougainvillea Spectabilis

Calyxis Ternaria

Rio de Janiero

13th November – 7th December 1768

A woody vine or shrub named after Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville who visited Tahiti pre-Cook. It is a native of South America growing 1m to 12m in height and is evergreen where rainfall occurs all year round, and deciduous if there is a dry season. The actual flower of the plant is small and generally white, but each cluster of three flowers is surrounded by three or six bracts with bright colours including pink, magenta, purple, red, orange, white, or yellow.

Originally, Bougainvillea spectabilis and Bougainvillea glabra were undifferentiated as separate species until the mid - 1980’s.  As a single species they represented those first introduced to Europe. It was introduced in Britain in 1829. Kew Gardens distributed the plant it propagated to British Colonies throughout the world.

Bougainvillea is a popular ornamental plant in warm climates and has a high salt tolerance making it a natural choice in coastal regions. It can be grown as Bonsai and as a house plant. There are over 300 varieties, mainly hybrids and can be propagated from stem and root cuttings.

The date 1829, while signalling the introduction of the plant in Britain, also represents a final stage in the journey of Bougainvillea spectabilis from the jungle of Brazil to the British Museum, as explained below. The dates 13th November – 7th December refer to an entry in Bank’s journal on the first Cook voyage. It records when HMS Endeavour remained in a 3-week anchorage near Rio de Janeiro. 

During this period, Banks and his colleagues were prohibited from disembarking so were unable to go ashore to undertake collection of specimens. However, they were able to overcome this difficulty and, surreptitiously, collected specimen. Amongst the specimen were those of the plant Bougainvillea.  The plant had been discovered and named on de Bougainville’s earlier voyage.

The plant Bougainvillea had been discovered by the botanists forming the team part of Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s Expedition of 1766 – 1769. The expedition consisted of two ships, the La Boudeuse and the Etoile. The senior botanist on board was Philibert Commerҫon, who was the first European to describe the plant. Commerҫon had an assistant botanist called Jean Baret. Jean Baret was, in fact, a woman called Jeanne Baré. She was also Commerҫon’s lover. Amazingly, she was able to disguise the fact she was a woman by dressing as male sailor until the latter part of the expedition’s voyage.

Commerҫon did not enjoy good health. This restricted his participation in and leading field trips to collect specimen. This meant that Baret took charge of many of the specimen collection trips including the one into the Brazilian jungle where the plant named Bougainvillea was discovered. As a result, she became the first European to see the plant.

Jeanne Baré was born in 1740 in Burgundy, France and was invited to join de Bougainville’s expedition in 1765. She and Commerҫon joined the expedition in 1766 and left the in 1768 when it arrived in Mauritius. 

The couple lived and worked from Mauritius until Commerҫon’s death 1773. Baré marries a French non-commissioned officer in 1774 and make their way back to France. This event itself is remarkable in that it signifies Baré having circumnavigated the world having originally started when she boarded the ship Etoile in Rochefort, France in 1766. She was the first woman to circumnavigate the world.

Commerҫon had bequeathed his estate to Baré including the outstanding remuneration owed to him and Baré for their work on the expedition. Baré was also in receipt of a pension from the French government up to the time of her death in 1807. Baré was a well-respected botanist such that in 2012 she had a plant named after her called Solanium baretiae.

The Jeanne Baré story is a fascinating journey in itself and one that impinges of that of the plant Bougainvillea. Specimen collected by Banks during the 3-week anchorage off Rio de Janeiro became part of Banks’ personal collection. In 1820 Banks bequeathed his extensive botanical collection and library to Robert Brown for his use during his lifetime. Robert Brown was a Scottish botanist known to Banks and had recommended him to the Admiralty for the post of naturalist aboard the ship Investigator. 

The expedition was to survey the northern and southern coasts of Australia under command of Matthew Flinders – 1801-1805. Brown later worked on Banks’ collections and then for the British Museum and subsequently transferred the Banks bequest to the Museum when he became Keeper of the newly formed Botanical Department in 1827. In 1829 the plant Bougainvillea was introduced in Britain.

Robert Parkinson