Calyxis ternaria was lost in time, at least the name and image were. But for a few delays and some rules, things might have been different, and C ternaria would be the scientific name for Bougainvillea spectabilis. The complex tale involves remarkably parallel and epic journeys of discovery.

Cutting to the chase, the wonderful plants we know as Bougainvillea were christened as Buginvillaea in Antoine Laurent de Jussieu’s famous Genera plantarum. Published in Paris, in 1789 (the year of the French Revolution), Genera plantarum (an original copy is in the Huntington rare book collections) could be considered the first modern summary of plant classification (organizing plants in logical, natural groupings).

A. L. de Jussieu was the most prominent of France’s great family of botanists (which included his uncles Bernard and Joseph, his father Antoine, and his own son Adrien-Henri), working at the Jardin des Plantes, where he compiled his great catalog and system of plants, a system that became the immediate successor to that created by Carl Linnaeus. At the center of the French plant world, Jussieu had access to almost every important collection of plants that made its way to the country, especially any plants generated through royal support.

Step back in time, two decades before the French Revolution, when plant specimens had just arrived in Paris from collections made as part of the famous Bougainville voyages. Louis-Antoine Comte de Bougainville (who a decade later would command ships as part of French engagement in the American Revolution) had launched two ships in 1766 in what would be the first French circumnavigation of the globe. Among his entourage were the naturalist Philibert Commerçon and Philibert’s consort (said to be his nurse) Jeanne Baré.

You should be surprised to realize this, because it was uncommon for women to be part of such expeditions. In fact, it was unheard of…. Jeanne Baré did a Mulan; she signed up as a man and thus became recognized (eventually) as the first woman to participate in a circumnavigation (which she completed independently in 1775). Check out Commerçon and Baré on the WWW for more on this story (a lot is known about their lives), but we must keep to the botany.

Horticulturists have selected a range of bract colors, from pinks and magentas, to salmons, oranges, and white.

Plant-wise, we credit Commerçon’s work as yielding the first collections of Bougainvillea, and Commerçon gets naming rights for the taxon published by Jussieu, a name later corrected for spelling to clarify the honoring of Bougainville. There are no drawings from the circumnavigation, but the first illustration of Bougainvillea was also French, published in Lamarck’s 1790 Tableau Encyclopédique et Methodique Botanique (with Jussieu’s Buginvillaea spelling, but classified as Linnaeus would have done).

Bougainvillea glabra

Now we turn back to the time of Bougainville’s voyage. Less than two years after his embarkation, in 1768, the illustrious James Cook began his important voyage on the HMS Endeavor to the South Pacific, accompanied by the notable botanist Joseph Banks, along with collaborator Daniel Solander, and artist Sydney Parkinson and several others (whose participation was supported financially by Banks). In a 3-week anchor near Rio de Janeiro, a delay during which the botanists were prohibited from disembarking and could only collect surreptitiously, specimens must have been acquired by Banks’ party. We know this because at Bank’s death, original illustrations of plants from near Rio were passed on to Botanist Robert Brown, and eventually to the British Museum. The material included Parkinsons’s drawings and a copperplate engraving of the plant we know as Bougainvillea.

Curiously left aside for more than nearly two centuries, the Parkinson illustration, which carried the unpublished name Calyxis ternaria, was eventually printed as part of the beautiful Banks Florilegium, a complete issuing through the British Museum of material from the Endeavor voyage.

Of course, the interesting botanical story is that the colorful components of Bougainvillea flowers are bracts. The flowers are tiny, tubular structures, formed in clusters of three blossoms (with their showy, subtending bracts). As members of the Four O’Clock family (the Nyctaginaceae), we interpret the floral tube as being made of sepals, lacking petals, which might be the origin of the unpublished Banks name Calyxis, with ternaria suggesting the flowers form in groups of three.

Showing all three flowers, each with its bract, in a single cluster

On a 2019 trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I saw wind-worn Papilio butterflies visiting the flowers.

For a more complete story of Bougainvillea, check out: “The discovery, naming and typification of Bougainvillea spectabilis (Nyctaginaceae)” by H. Walter Lack

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