Calla lily, Poinsettia, Bougainvillea. Three of the plants in which people sometimes mistake leaves for flowers. Gardens and hedges in Mumbai are full of the splashy colours of Bougainvillea right now. But the colourful stuff isn’t petals, they are just the leaves surrounding the true flower. The youngest niece asked me, “What’s the difference?” Well, the petals unfurl from inside the bud, but the bracts, these differently coloured leaves, develop from the stem just as normal leaves would do. Hers was a deep question if I read it differently. One parts of the “abominable question” of the rise of flowering plants which exercised Darwin was the origin of petals. Are they modified leaves, or modified stamen? Modern methods are beginning to answer this question, but the understanding can change yet. Current opinion leans towards petals rising from bracts.
In our balcony I caught the bracts in the middle of changing colour. In the featured photo you can see the green stalks of the buds just about to open into tiny flowers. The leaves around them have started losing their chlorophyll. The transformation has progressed further in the leaves closest to the bud. A few of the leaves in this cluster are more green, presumably having started the transition later. Further back in the same branch you see a small cluster of leaves which have just begun to turn colour.
Just for fun, here is another of my experiments with black and white. This time I wanted to get the difference in texture between the leaf and the bract, and colour distracts from texture. I’m happy to have caught this plant at the right time.
The Bougainvillea on our balcony has begun to flower. The west-facing balcony makes it very hard to photograph the delicately textured white bracts which surround the tiny flowers. In the morning the back-light presents a terrible contrast, and in the evening the setting sun glares into the lens. But I have time, so eventually I’ll find a way to solve this problem. While reading about Bougainvillea, one of the first interesting things I found was that it was initially described, as I expected, during Bougainvillea’s circumnavigation of the world which started in 1766 CE. What I had not known was the interesting story of the two botanists on board: Philibert Commerson, Royal botanist, and his long time assistant, Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world.
Baret disguised herself as a man, since women were forbidden on French navy ships of that time by a royal ordinance. It is believed that the first samples of this thorny flowering vine were collected by her when the ships docked in Rio de Janeiro. Baret’s circumnavigation of the earth was interrupted after reaching Tahiti, when she was discovered to be a woman. Baret and Commerson were forced to disembark in Mauritius, where they lived until his death. Eventually Baret married and moved back to France in 1775, completing the circling of the globe. Commerson had, in the mean time, written about her as the first woman voyager around the world. On her return to France she was tried by a naval court, and, under the influence of Bougainvillea, was acquitted with honor, being described as `femme extraordinare’ and granted a pension of 200 livres a year.