Daisy Helman

In Praise of Bougainvillea

Look at any postcard from Santorini you’re guaranteed to see three things: azure seas, white-washed walls, and froths of fuchsia Bougainvillea, otherwise known as “the paper flower”. The remarkable floriferous vine resembles something out of a Greek myth, a gift bestowed upon mortals from atop Mount Olympus: not only is it virtually pest-free and extremely hardy, it can grow on practically any surface, be it a small potted plant, a tree, or an impressive Hellenic terrace. (The plant is referred to as “the paper flower” because the bracts are thin and papery, even though the sturdy, creeping vine is not.) Bougainvillea’s versatility and beauty, coupled with Greece’s warm Mediterranean climate (which enables the plant to bloom year-round), has made Bougainvillea the go-to ornamental plant for gardeners across the Aegean. It snakes across tavernas, rooftops, churches, and marketplaces all across Greece– the perfect complement to the striking whites and royal blues that define the region’s architecture.

Many green thumbs equate the paper flower with Greek horticulture, but it’s the British and French tourists we have to thank for it. In the early nineteenth century, French and English botanists visiting the Brazilian coast came across Bougainvillea for the first time and started cultivating it; soon, they started a thriving plant trade through which they introduced South American specimens to countries around the world, including Greece and the United States (thanks to its high salt tolerance, the Bougainvillea plant flourishes in South Florida). Two hundred years later, the plant remains immensely popular, both as ornamentation and as a visually-stunning contrast to the simple vegetable gardens that often lie underneath it’s creeping shadow.

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Garden Collage’s visit to Greece wasn’t complete without a stroll amidst the paper flowers, which amounted to a colorful floral scavenger hunt of sorts. As we explored Santorini, we paid special attention to the Bougainvillea, always keeping a look out for its magnificent blossoms and the gentle way they adorned various private homes and public spaces. Next to the olive tree, it just may be Greece’s definitive flower.

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