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Meaning of Bougainvillea

By Elisabeth Ginsburg ; Updated September 21, 2017
The colorful bracts of bougainvillea have many meanings.
bougainvillea image by L. Shat from Fotolia.com

Bougainvillea is an evergreen flowering vine distinguished by its beautiful, colored bracts and sharp spines. It is native to Brazil and other tropical areas in Central and South America. The plant was first discovered in Rio de Janeiro in 1768 by botanist Philibert Commerson, who named it after Admiral Louis Antoine, Comte de Bougainville, captain of the ship that carried Commerson to the New World. Bougainvillea shares membership in the Nyctaginaceae family with common four o'clocks. Single or double bracts bloom in shades of white, pink, peach, orange and rose, with some bi-colored varieties as well. Most modern bougainvilleas are hybrids derived from two species: Bougainvillea spectabilis (the species discovered by Commerson) and Bougainvillea glabra. Since their discovery in the eighteenth century, the flowers have acquired many meanings.

Meanings: Official Flowers

Like other beautiful plants, Bougainvillea has been chosen as the symbol of a host of countries, regions and municipalities. It is the national flower of the Caribbean nation of Granada and the United States territory of Guam. It is also the official flower of several counties in Taiwan and Malaysia. In the United States, Bougainvillea is the floral symbol of three California cities: Camarillo, Laguna Niguel and San Clemente.

Meanings: Nicknames

Malaysians call Bougainvillea "bunga kekwa" or "paper flower", because of the papery quality of the bracts. One Hawaiian nickname is "pua kepalo," which means "devil flower." This is most likely a reference to its sharp spines and possibly to the red bracts.

Symbol of Welcome

Despite its devilish nickname, Hawaiians sometimes use Bougainvillea to make leis, the traditional floral garlands that are used to celebrate happy occasions and welcome visitors. The bracts are strung in bunches or individually, with thread piercing the center of each three-bracted "flower."

Symbol of Colonial Expansion

Though native to South America, Bougainvillea spread as Europeans traded with or colonized different parts of the world. Colonists carried the plants to the Caribbean, Africa, India and southeast Asia, where they continue to be widely grown. The plant arrived in Hawaii in 1827. The United States and India eventually established bougainvillea societies for fanciers of the vine.

Bougainvillea Celebrated Everywhere as a Symbol of Beauty

Bougainvillea is so popular that many streets, buildings and institutions bear its name in parts of California, India, Australia and elsewhere. The Bougainvillea Society of India sponsors an annual festival, as does the island of Fiji. The city of Darwin in Australia held a bougainvillea festival for many years. It continues under the name, "Darwin Festival."


About the Author


Elisabeth Ginsburg, a writer with over 20 years' experience, earned an M.A. from Northwestern University and has done advanced study in horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. Her work has been published in the "New York Times," "Christian Science Monitor," "Horticulture Magazine" and other national and regional publications.