Saturday, March 22, 2008


When I saw the bougainvillea here in Panama--and it's everywhere!--I immediately knew the real meaning of lust. I lusted after those plants--they are so utterly beautiful. Huge, with large sprays of flowers in shades of red, blue, lavender, orange, white. I wanted them all.

And so the first thing I did when we moved into our house was to buy bougainvillea. Just 4 plants. And put them out on our south boundary. Thinking that it was going to be easy. After all--everyone had bougainvillea, right? And it was obvious that it didn't need a lot of care.

Yes--but there was a caveat to that. No, it doesn't need a lot of care--once it's established. And there lies the kicker. Once it's established.

Despite it practically being the signature plant of the tropics, especially in the Caribbean area, bougainvillea did not originate in Central America but in Brasil. It was named after a French botanist who discovered/described the plant.

Brasil is huge, much bigger than the continental US. In addition, it's not a rectangle spread out horizontally but a land mass that extends from just a tad north of the equator down past the Tropic of Capricorn to slightly more than 30 degrees south latitude; Brasil encompasses far more degrees of latitude than does the continental US. Which means that Brasil hosts a very large number of recognizable climate zones ( many more than the continental US), from equatorial and subequatorial through tropical, semi-arid and various subdivisions of temperate. So when you say a plant originated in Brasil, you can't automatically assume anything about the climate in which it grows best.

It rains here in Panama, a lot. And it turns out that bougainvillea really isn't that thrilled with a whole lot of rain. Tolerant, yes but really thrive? No. in fact, because it flowers during the dry season, it's called veranera here, or "summer plant". It doesn't like wet feet, so you have to be really careful of drainage--that in a country like Panama where the annual rainfall is measured in feet. Also, the roots are fragile and it takes a while for a decent root ball to amass. I planted 45+ bougainvillea, and as of yesterday, 34 have survived (of which half are flowering this year), and that doesn't include about a half dozen replacement plants I put in last year. It takes at least 2 years for the plant to get established, for some varieties longer. The most vigorous is the red type which--no surprise there--is the most commonly seen.

Not only do you have to worry about the plant's natural fragility at a young age, but leaf cutter ants find bougainvillea a gourmet meal. We have a beautiful white one that was growing vigorously and which I had pruned so that it was a lovely bushy plant, about 2 ft tall. Last year, about a week after I had looked at it (it's down near one corner of our rectangular property), I happened to be weedeating in that area--and the plant was completely stripped of leaves and shortened by 6-8 inches. Leaf cutters had stripped it and chewed off--precise cuts like with a pruning shears--the tender growth. With pleading and coaxing and generous doses of fertilizer, the plant is finally making a comeback this year. That's another thing I've noticed--bougainvillea does not make a rapid comeback to adverse conditions when young.

Once established, though--once they develop that thick trunk--they're pretty much impervious to anything. Great drought-resistant plants.

BUT despite all the headaches and heartbreaks, when you discover that no matter what you've done, some plants simply have not survived the torrential downpours of winter, they're worth the effort. On the top of the page is a picture of our oldest veranera--one plant is now 4 years old, the others three.

There are some spectacular specimens of veranera around the neighborhood. Here are some photos.

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