Sunday, April 7, 2013

When a flower isn't a flower: part 1

Species name: Bougainvillea spectabilis

Common name: bougainvillea, Napoleon, veranera, trinitaria (amongst others)

Location: Dominican Republic

Bougainvilleas are some of the most well known and well recognized tropical plants in the world. They originated from a relatively small band of South America, extending from Brazil west to Peru and south to Chile and Argentina. Depending on who you ask, there are between 4 and 18 species in the group (18 species is probably an over-estimation due to morphological variation displayed even in a single group of individuals, but I doubt there are only four species since diversity of plants in the tropics is so high). DNA sequence analysis definitely needs to be performed on this group to help not only with defining diversity, but also establishing if any of these populations (however isolated) are their own species and hence are in dire need of protection and conservation. One of the reasons why this is such a popular "resort plant" in tropical countries is because of its extreme ability to tolerate salt (it can tolerate being watered with seawater! That's salty!) it makes for an ideal ornamental species where salt spray (and periodic flooding due to storm surges) is common.

The "flowers" of the bougainvillea plant are great examples of how plants can entice animals into believing that they produce these large, showy flowers, but in reality produce small, barely noticeable flowers and fruit. The pink "petals" that many people believe to be the flowers aren't at all; they're just modified leaves containing pink pigments instead of green ones that act to attract pollinators (we call these bracts). The flowers themselves are the small white bits on the inside; there are usually three white flowers surrounded by three to six bracts. The bracts can be white, yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, green, or any colour inbetween. The only colour of bougainvillea bract that I don't think exists is blue; feel free to correct me if you've ever seen a blue one! There are over 300 different varieties of bougainvillea sold as ornamental plants, so it wouldn't surprise me if it had been "invented". Not only have there been hundreds of cultivars and varieties created through selective breeding, but bougainvilleas also naturally hybridize in the wild. There is even a population of plants in Peru, once thought to be a distinct species, that is a hybrid of two commonly found species. What's unusual about this hybrid population isn't the fact that it's a population of hybrid plants, it's where the parental plants are located. And that's nowhere near this hybrid population. There's no documented evidence, either, that either of the parent plants of this hybrid ever existed in this area of Peru. So how did they get there? Is this evidence of "early gardening" by native Peruvians? Is this evidence for population reduction in both parental species of bougainvillea? Can the seeds really be carried that far? Is there an animal vector (or was there an animal vector) that eats the fruit to disperse the seeds that we don't know about? Some fascinating questions with (so far) no conclusive answers.

Other than the ornamental value, this plant has no other uses to humans. The sap of the plant to some people is highly irritating to the skin; in people who are highly sensitive to the sap the reaction can be as extreme as it is to poison ivy. Other people either don't react at all or react with a slight rash and a mild itching. Luckily, unlike with poison ivy, a cut portion of the stem must come in prolonged contact with the skin in order to cause a reaction. This means that you should only be worried if you have been given the task of pruning a patch of bougainvilleas; if you have, make sure you wear a long-sleeved shirt and gloves and you'll be fine. This is also a very popular plant to turn into a bonsai (although, a different species is often used; B. glabra). The bougainvillea is the national plant of Guam, as well as the regional flowers of regions in China, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, and the United States.

Stay tuned for part 2 of "When a flower isn't a flower" tomorrow, featuring one of the most commonly purchased plants for ornamental, indoor use.