Colonizing Plants: How Bougainvillea Conquered the World
Shahnaz Habib on the Relationship Between Colonialism, Natural Science and Travel
I have so many photos of it. Bougainvillea draping over walls next to cobbled streets, bougainvillea in pots running wild over the iron grills of restaurants, bougainvillea bonsai in a rock garden. They are hardy, flowering even in near-droughts. They come in an array of lollipop colors, from golden yellow to magenta. They fit into any context, somehow managing to look as if they have always belonged here. Cobbled street in Rome? Sure. Beachside balcony in Miami? Why not. Riverfront in Lisbon? No problem.
I remember my mental muscles twitching the first time I learned that the papery petals of the bougainvillea are actually not flowers; they are leaves. We lived then in a small house, rented from a family friend. The neighbors on both sides were wealthy and their houses had gardens, and the households had stay-at-home mothers and servants to water the plants. As a result, a luxuriant bough of bougainvillea clambered over one tall wall and spilled over into the thin mud corridor between our house and their wall. I thought of it as our bougainvillea and felt even then the grace of this plant, climbing over walls, bridging social chasms, bringing its beauty to people who had done nothing to deserve it.The bougainvillea is not a bougainvillea just as its flower is not a flower.
It was my aunt, an agricultural scientist, who told me that the bougainvillea flowers as I thought of them were not flowers, that they were leaves. The scientific term is bract—a modified leaf that often hides the real flower in its axil. Bougainvillea bracts come in extraordinary colors, from shades of pink that go from the lightest of blushes to extravagant fuchsias. There are crinkly yellows that remind me of crumpled first drafts and oranges and saffrons and whites, often brilliant against the lush green leafery that surrounds them. “These bracts are actually protecting the real flowers, by pretending to be flowers,” my aunt told me, teasing out the tiny white flower hiding inside a cluster of bougainvillea bracts.
My parents eventually built a house of their own. By the time they finished the house, we children had left home. After years of living in a house that was too small, my parents now live alone in a house that is too big for them. My mother, whose bank-clerk salary was the only source of income for most of our childhood, started gardening, turning her practical maternal attention to green peppers and curry leaves and aloe vera. “I am not interested in flowers,” she would say, frugally choosing “useful plants” to make the most of her small yard. But then the bougainvillea bug bit her.
One year when I came home from Brooklyn, there was a row of pots on the wall, with bougainvilleas in different colors spilling out of them. It was my job that summer to water them carefully. Bougainvillea roots are famously weak—they are climbers, so they do not have to support their own weight. What they have instead is a strong grip—using their thorns, they wind their way up or down, making a home for themselves on hedges, walls, other trees, making themselves both ordinary and spectacular at the same time. They reminded me of the way I, too, was clawing my way up the walls of another country, while my roots shallowed in the ground.
And so I started reading about them. Bougainvilleas are named after the eighteenth-century French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who led a voyage of circumnavigation around the world. His expedition was part of the race between the British and the French to make new discoveries in the South Pacific. Bougainville’s expedition was the first one to include a government-sponsored naturalist on board, Philibert Commerçon.
The expedition arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1767, where Commerçon noticed trees with bright mauve and magenta bracts. He named this new genus Bougainvillea, in honor of the expedition leader. Commerçon is said to have collected at least five specimens of this then-unusual plant in Rio de Janeiro—today these specimens can be seen in various herbariums in France.
But was it really Commerçon who noticed these plants first? Commerçon was not a man in robust health; he would go on to die in Madagascar during the same expedition. On board, he was accompanied by an assistant who also happened to be an expert botanist. There is some speculation that this assistant was his lover, a woman who had disguised herself as a man to fit into the masculine atmosphere of the ship.
According to Glynis Ridley’s The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe, it was Baret who first noticed and described this plant—and perhaps most of the six thousand-odd natural specimens that the expedition collected—many of these named for Commerçon or Bougainville. In Ridley’s telling, Baret went looking for medicinal plants in the forest of Rio de Janeiro because Commerçon was sick, and she was drawn to the red bracts of the bougainvillea because of the doctrine of signatures, according to which the shapes and colors of plants can reveal their uses.
The very next year, Captain Cook and his Endeavour expedition would arrive in Rio de Janeiro, where the Portuguese rulers had grown even more suspicious. Joseph Banks, the naturalist on board, and his team were not allowed to disembark, but according to their diaries, they managed to outwit the sentinels and sneak out at night by boat. The Endeavour returned to London with various plant specimens and the first recorded sketch of a bougainvillea—a finished watercolor that is now in the collection of the Natural History Museum of London.
And thus the bougainvillea was discovered and described and identified. But of course, it was neither Commerçon nor Baret who discovered the bougainvillea. The flower is native to the countries we now know as Brazil, Argentina, and Peru. It is interesting that even though Glynis Ridley is alive to the unfairness by which Jeanne Baret is sidelined from bougainvillea history, she does not inquire into the lopsidedness of colonial explorers getting to name plants after themselves without seeking to find their local names or understand their local contexts. The words discovered or described or identified suggest a foreign audience for these actions—the locals did not need to perform any of these elaborate epistemological tasks.
People of color often use air quotes when we talk of explorers who “discovered” the Americas or India. Alas, it is hard to translate air quotes to text. My fingers ache often to somehow include the eye-rolling with which we accompany air quotes. I propose instead a new word: pseudiscovery. The silent p, I hope, will convey the silence of our air quotes, the people and places who were rendered invisible when Europeans pseudiscovered them.
Today the bougainvillea is the cliché flower you expect to see in cute colonial towns. It is known as Santa Rita in Uruguay, trinitaria in Mexico, jahanamiya in Arabic, bunga kertas in Indonesia. I love also all the vernacular variations of bougainvillea, the pronunciations catching the local accents—from bowgainvilla in my own Malayalam to bumbagilia in Spanish.
But before the bougainvillea was pseudiscovered and grown in the herbariums of France and propagated in the gardens of England, before it was transplanted into tropical colonies around the world by the British, French, and Portuguese, before it acquired all these different names, it must have had a name. What is the bougainvillea called in the Tupian languages, many of them now extinct, spoken in the Andean region when Commerçon and Cook arrived? It must have been called something else. Or rather, it was something else. In other words, the bougainvillea is not a bougainvillea just as its flower is not a flower.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about coming across the word puhpowee, the Anishinabe word for the force that causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight. “As a biologist I was stunned that such a word existed,” Kimmerer writes, adding that Western natural science has no such term, no words to hold the mystery of invisible energies. While she admires botany for its “intimate vocabulary that names each little part” of a plant, she is conscious that something is missing when you reduce a creature to its working parts. Kimmerer calls this a “a grave loss in translation from the native languages.”Perhaps there was a brief moment there when we could have chartered a different relationship to nature.
When those seafaring French naturalists aboard the Étoile decided to call this delicate pink flower a bougainvillea and when the “Buginvillea spectabilis” was finally entered into the second volume of the fourth edition of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum in 1799, what was lost was not just the local name of a bract. It was one of countless missed opportunities to counterpoint the Enlightenment view of the world, which European explorers carried around the world as the foundation of knowledge. Perhaps there was a brief moment there when we could have chartered a different relationship to nature that might have saved our planet from the environmental blunders that were set in motion with the Industrial Revolution.
It is also worth remembering that the male European dominance over natural history in this particular moment also represented a break in another tradition: herbalism. Traditionally, across many cultures, women were the mistresses of the world of herbs and plants. Natural history was mostly a domestic science, used in medicine and cooking.
But with botany emerging as a science in the eighteenth century, men of science began claiming for themselves the role of taxonomers and natural history experts, especially after Carl Linnaeus’s system of classifying plants according to their sexual and reproductive qualities threw the shadow of immodesty over the study of botany. Jeanne Baret’s biographer, Glynis Ridely, speculates that Baret was an herb woman who came into contact with the naturalist Commerçon because she was a source of information for him.
In Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt traces the history of modern travel writing to this particular moment. “The South Sea expeditions of Cook and Bougainville, first organized around the transit of Venus in 1768, inaugurated the era of scientific travel and scientific travel writing,” she says. With Cook mapping the shores of Australia, those voyages marked the end of the era of European navigational exploration.
Now that there were no more new shores to plant the flag on, exploration shifted inland, aided and abetted by the naturalists and botanists and illustrators who found it easier to get sponsored by their governments and monarchs to accompany such expeditions. Much like the U.S. journalists who were embedded with U.S. soldiers during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, these supposedly neutral scholars and scientists would also disguise their sympathies under the cloak of seeking and classifying and disseminating information.
Pratt breaks down how scientific and later sentimental travel writing comes out of a European knowledge-building project that in turn was both tool and disguise for colonial expansion. Natural history asserted the European male authority over the planet and his rationalist, extractive understanding of people and places as opposed to experiential, community-oriented understanding. It anointed the white male authority figure as an obvious choice for the narrator of travel writing. This authority was a more utopian, innocent version of the colonial explorer’s authority. It was concerned more with science and natural history, but it managed to reinforce the expansionist systems of European surveillance and appropriation of resources.
The insidiousness by which natural history explorations continued the colonial project while setting themselves apart from it reminds me of how in our own times, tourists will often set themselves apart from other tourists by calling themselves travelers. While tourists are derided for their all-too-obvious desires, their kitschy souvenirs and their group travels, travelers are somehow deeper and seeking profound experiences. They may take the shape of voluntourists, who are convinced they are making the Third World a better place, or spiritual seekers looking to discover who they are amid the squalor. Increasingly plain old tourism is being whitewashed and greenwashed into “travel” in the same way that mercantile exploring was reframed as natural history explorations. But these reinventions are still operating within the same voyeuristic paradigms that their predecessors set in place.
From Airplane Mode: An Irreverent History of Travel by Shahnaz Habib. Copyright © 2023. Available from Catapult Books.