Bougainvillea flowers have long been prized for their stunning inflorescences, which are colorful, paper-like bracts surrounding tiny white flowers. Also known as paper flowers, in warm climates, these thorny, evergreen vines grace the landscape with long-lasting blooms in a wide range of hues. Drought- and sun-tolerant, these tough plants also have many medicinal uses. Here we’ll take you through everything you need to know about bougainvillea flower symbolism and meaning, their history and origins, uses and benefits, and cultural significance around the world today.
- Bougainvillea Symbolism – The Essentials
- About Bougainvillea Flowers
- Uses and Benefits of Bougainvillea Flowers
- Bougainvillea Flower Symbolism
- The Cultural Significance of Bougainvillea Flowers
- Suitable Gifting Occasions for Bougainvillea Flowers / Plants
- Bougainvillea Flower FAQs:
Bougainvillea Flower Symbolism – The Essentials
The stunning bougainvillea flower carries the symbolic meaning of passion and beauty. This evergreen vine’s “blooms” — actually brightly colored bracts — grow in stunning shades of red, pink, and more. When given as a gift, it’s easy to see why the language of flowers uses bougainvillea as a symbol of passionate attraction.
About Bougainvillea Flowers
Family, Genus, and Taxonomy
Bougainvillea, also known as paper flowers, belongs to the Bougainvillea genus. Part of the Nyctaginaceae or “four o’clock” family, there are up to 18 recognized species in the genus.
History & Origins of Bougainvillea Flowers
Native to South America, the history of the European “discovery” of bougainvillea is steeped in drama. In the late 1700s, Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville was circumnavigating the globe with his official botanist, Philibert Commerson.
Unknown to the rest of the crew, Commerson’s assistant, a (female) herbalist named Jeanne Baret, was also on board. At that time, women weren’t allowed on explorations. Baret disguised herself as a man and credited her many botanical discoveries to Commerson.
Baret brought a bougainvillea plant to the ship, after finding it growing in the mountains around Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Sometime after, the crew discovered Baret’s true identity and her life was in danger. In order to gain Admiral de Bougainville’s protection, Commerson agreed to name the plant after him.
Over time, the bougainvillea spread across the world. Today, this thorny flowering plant grows in warm climates from the Philippines to China, Portugal to the U.S, India to Australia, and more.
Botanical Characteristics, Colors, Fragrances
The most common bougainvillea species grown as ornamentals, B. spectabilis and B. glabra, are perennial, shrubby vines. Evergreen in warm climates, this woody climber supports itself with thorns and quasi-twining stems.
A broadleaf evergreen, bougainvillea can grow up to 40 feet tall and wide if provided with support. Foliage is green and leathery.
The plants also produce bracts or modified leaves that are papery and brightly colored. The bracts surround the plant’s flowers, which are tiny, white, and grow in clusters of three with a bract underneath.
Bracts grow in a range of colors, including red, pink, white, purple, and orange. Neither bracts nor flowers have a fragrance.
Popular Types, Species, and Cultivars
B. spectabilis and B. glabra are two bougainvillea species commonly grown in the landscape. There are more than 250 varieties available.
Popular cultivars include:
- ‘Deep Purple’ has light-green foliage and bright fuchsia bracts
- ‘Dwarf Lavender,’ a smaller vine with purple-pink bracts
- ‘Helen Johnson,’ which only grows to 3 feet and has hot pink bracts
- ‘James Walker,’ a slow-growing bougainvillea with orange and pink ruffled bracts
- ‘Lady Baring’ grows quickly and produces large clusters of yellow bracts
- ‘Miss Alice’ is thornless, with white bracts
- ‘Pixie’ has extra thick foliage that covers thorns
- ‘Sundown’ boasts bright orange bracts
- ‘Vicky’ has variegated gold and green foliage and white or pink bracts
Bougainvillea is named after Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a late 18th-century explorer.
What regions are Bougainvillea Flowers Native to?
Bougainvillea is native to eastern regions of South America, including parts of Brazil, Peru, and Argentina. Today, they grow across tropical and warm regions of the world.
When are Bougainvillea Flowers in Season?
In tropical and warm climates, bougainvillea’s colorful bracts appear periodically throughout the year. Blooms generally last four to six weeks.
Uses and Benefits of Bougainvillea Flowers
Bougainvillea has long been prized for its medicinal benefits. In traditional medicine across regions where bougainvillea grows, the plants are utilized to treat a number of ailments, such as fever, cough, and sore throat. In some regions, bougainvillea is used to treat stomach aches, inflammation and as an antiseptic. It’s also been used to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
Research shows that bougainvillea contains beneficial compounds, including flavonoids and saponins. It also contains pinitol, which offers promise as a treatment for diabetes.
Bougainvillea plants’ medicinal properties may include:
Bougainvillea has culinary uses, as well. In Thailand, bracts are eaten raw in salads and fried.
While bougainvillea plants are not listed as toxic to pets or children, the sap contains a mild skin irritant. Bougainvillea thorns may cause an allergic reaction in the skin.
The plants’ bright bracts attract pollinators to the garden. These may include bees, butterflies, and moths.
Bougainvillea Flower Symbolism
Bougainvillea produces bracts in a range of colors, from hot pink, red and orange to purple, white, and yellow. In the language of flowers, bougainvillea stands for passion. To the Victorians, a gift of bougainvillea was meant to ignite passion.
In other parts of the world, bougainvillea flowers stand for welcoming visitors, peace, and free trade.
The Cultural Significance of Bougainvillea Flowers
Bougainvillea has long graced tropical gardens around the world. After these South American natives began to be exported, their popularity in warm regions has only grown.
Today, bougainvillea is the national flower of Grenada. An image of the plant is on the national coat of arms and several streets and hotels are named for bougainvillea. In Guam, bougainvillea is also the state flower. Several cities in California, Japan, China, and the Philippines have chosen the bougainvillea as their official flower.
Several countries celebrate the bougainvillea at annual festivals. In Darwin, Australia, a bougainvillea festival drew crowds for decades. The island nation of Fiji also has a bougainvillea festival, as does the Bougainvillea Society of India.
In Hawaii, bougainvillea is sometimes used in leis to welcome visitors. In some parts of Africa, dried bougainvillea bracts are used as confetti. And in the Himalayas, bougainvillea vines are grown as living fences and used to pen livestock.
In California, the plant gained popularity as a landscape ornamental in the late 1800s. There, it was often grown on historic Spanish mission buildings and in public parks and featured prominently at the early 1900s Spanish-Panama Exposition. Vintage postcards from this era often feature bright bougainvillea.
Suitable Gifting Occasions for Bougainvillea Flowers / Plants
The brilliant colors of bougainvillea light up any bouquet, arrangement, or floral gift. In the language of flowers, bougainvillea symbolizes passion, so they’re a great addition to a bouquet for a loved one or that special date night.
Bougainvillea lights up any landscape or floral gift with its stunning, colorful bracts. These paper-thin petals come in a stunning array of colors, from red and pink to orange, white, yellow, and purple. Perfect for hot, dry locations, bougainvillea is woody, thorny climbers that quickly fill the landscape with color and texture. In the language of flowers, these South American natives stand for passion.
Bougainvillea Flower FAQs:
Are bougainvillea plants considered lucky?
Bougainvillea flowers were considered a symbol of passion to the Victorians. In other cultures, they symbolize welcome, peace, and the promotion of free trade.
What color flowers do bougainvillea plants produce?
Bougainvillea flowers are tiny, white, and nondescript, but they’re surrounded by brilliant, papery bracts that look like flowers. These bracts grow in a range of colors, including red, pink, orange, yellow, purple, and white.
How many times a year does a bougainvillea bloom?
In hot climates, bougainvillea can bloom periodically throughout the year. Usually, they bloom in spring, summer, or fall.
How long does a bougainvillea bloom?
Most bougainvillea bloom for a long time. Expect to see colorful bracts for four to six weeks at a time.
Where does bougainvillea grow best?
Bougainvillea grows best in sites with dry soil and lots of sun. They thrive in tropical and warm climates, and in USDA hardiness zones 9b to 11a.
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Linsay is an American copywriter based in the Pacific Northwest with a background in academic writing and research. Linsay holds Master's degree in both Anthropology and Library and Information Sciences and has written for numerous national and international publications including USA Today, SFGATE, Hunker, and The Bump across an array of topics in the gardening, green living, and travel sectors. When she's not writing, you'll usually find Linsay reading, kayaking, sailing, snowboarding, or working in her garden.