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Bougainvillea is a flowering, woody vine comprised of dark green, ovate to heart-shaped leaves averaging 2 to 6 centimeters in diameter and 4 to 13 centimeters in length. The leaves grow in alternate arrangements, and there are also sharp thorns trailing along the sprawling vines. Bougainvillea plants are well-known for their colorful bracts. These bracts are often mistaken for the vine's flowers and are also referred to as modified leaves. Bougainvillea bracts appear in shades of yellow, white, red, orange, purple, fuschia, and magenta, and the color will vary depending on the variety. The bracts are smooth, papery, and pliable, featuring prominent veining across the surface, and are generally 1 to 5 centimeters in length. The true flowers of the plants are tiny white or yellow blooms that rise from the center of 3 to 6 bracts, connected at their mid-ribs. The flowers are waxy, delicate, and frilled and are typically covered or overshadowed by clusters of colorful bracts. Bougainvillea bracts are the primary portion of the plant used in culinary and medicinal preparations and are edible raw or cooked, releasing a subtly sweet, floral, and lightly bitter taste.
Bougainvillea flowers bloom year-round in tropical climates and in the spring through fall in subtropical climates.
Bougainvillea flowers, botanically a part of the Bougainvillea genus, are the blooms of a sprawling, evergreen vine belonging to the Nyctaginaceae family. There are approximately 4 to 18 species within the Bougainvillea genus, and over 300 varieties are present worldwide, with many hybrids occurring in wild and cultivated plants. Bougainvillea is a climbing vine extending 1 to 12 meters in height, depending on the variety, and the plants are also known as Veranera, Camelina, Bugambilias, Bugambilia, Papelillo, and Paper Flowers. While the plants are famous worldwide as ornamentals for home and urban gardens, Bougainvillea bracts are used on a small scale in South America and Asia as a culinary and medicinal ingredient. Historically, bracts are used in beverages and are valued for their soothing properties for colds, fevers, and sore throats.
Bougainvillea has not been studied for its nutritional properties. The colorful bracts and young leaves have been used in natural medicines, especially in South America, since ancient times. It is said Bougainvillea acts as a natural anti-inflammatory and helps to soothe sore throats, fevers, asthma, coughs, and other flu and cold symptoms. The bracts and young leaves are steeped into tea, often combined with honey or infused into syrup. It is also believed that an infusion of water and Bougainvillea acts to remedy digestive and respiratory issues. Topically, parts of the plant are used to clean wounds, rashes, and irritations. It must be noted that some consumers may experience unwanted side effects or allergic reactions after using Bougainvillea. These are rare, but when ingesting new plants, care and discussion should always be had. Bougainvillea has a reputation for sometimes being toxic, which is mainly associated with the plant's thorns. The thorns are coated in a substance that can cause skin irritations and often lead to itchiness, rashes, and infections when put in contact with the skin.
Bougainvillea has a light, subtly sweet, and mildly bitter taste suited for raw or cooked preparations. The bracts are the only portion of the plant consumed in culinary preparations, and the tiny white flowers are discarded as they impart a bitter flavor. It is important to note that research should be conducted before eating the plant’s bracts to ensure the variety is suitable for consumption. Most experts claim that the species Bougainvillea brasiliensis is edible. Discussion with a medical professional is also advised before ingesting the plant. Bougainvillea bracts can be washed, dried, and tossed into salads, used as edible decorations on cakes and other desserts, or used as a topping over grain bowls and appetizers. The bracts should be added just before serving to prevent wilting or softening. Bougainvillea bracts can be placed on pizza, mixed into frostings, or fried. In Southern Thailand, Bougainvillea bracts are dipped in batter, fried, and served as a side dish with aromatics, known as dok mai thot. Beyond culinary dishes, Bougainvillea is popularly used in drink preparations worldwide. The bracts are simmered into teas, mixed into lemonades, or steeped and combined into smoothies. They are also infused into cocktails, wine spritzers, and various agua frescas. Bougainvillea bracts pair well with limes, lemons, hibiscus, sugar, coconut sugar, and aromatics, including garlic, chiles, fish sauce, and peanuts. Freshly harvested Bougainvillea should be immediately used for the best quality and flavor. The bracts will keep for 2 to 3 days if kept on their vines and placed in water.
Bougainvillea plants were named after French naval commander and globe circumnavigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville. The story goes that Bougainville was commissioned by the French government in 1766 to sail around the world to find new territories for France. Bougainville had naturalist Dr. Philibert Commerson join him on the voyage to document the new plant life that would be found. Dr. Commerson boarded the La Boudeuse ship, but he also had Jeanne Baret come aboard as his assistant. Women were forbidden to join voyages, so Baret had to disguise herself as a man and pretend to be Dr. Commerson’s helper. It is unknown why Baret decided to risk her life to sail on the voyage, but rumors speculate there was a romantic component to the decision. Baret collected most of the plants throughout the expedition as Dr. Commerson often fell ill. Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and encountered Bougainvillea in Rio de Janeiro. During the voyage, Baret was discovered to be a woman and risked losing her life. It is said Dr. Commerson diffused the situation by naming Bougainvillea after the commander Bougainville, and Bougainville decided to spare Baret’s life, leaving Dr. Commerson and Baret in the port of Mauritius.
Bougainvillea is native to South America, specifically regions of Brazil, and has been growing wild since ancient times. The vining plants spread throughout South America's forests in the early ages and became naturalized in Peru, Argentina, and later in Central America. Bougainvillea thrives in various soil types in tropical to subtropical climates, and the hardy plants can be grown as a spreading vine, bonsai tree, ground cover, or small shrub. The plant was first described by French botanist Dr. Philibert Commerson and his assistant in Rio de Janeiro in the 1760s and was mentioned in Genera Plantarum, a famous work written by A.L. de Jusseau in 1789. Bougainvillea was introduced to Europe in the 1800s and was carried to Australia through the establishment of European colonies. It was also grown in Mexico by the 1800s and spread into California in the 1860s. By the 1930s, several species were grown worldwide as ornamental, and breeders began hybridizing new species for commercial cultivation. Today, Bougainvillea plants are naturalized and grown commercially worldwide. The plants are also commonly found in home gardens and urban landscapes. Bougainvillea bracts are typically foraged from wild and cultivated plants and sold fresh in select local markets. The Bougainvillea featured in the photograph above was sourced through a fresh market in Colombia.
Recipes that include Bougainvillea Flowers. One is easiest, three is harder.
|In Mama Maggie's Kitchen
|Nibbles and Feasts
|Bougainvillea and Champagne Grape Salad