Bougainvillea and Native Hawaiian Gardenias – winter time favorites

By Heidi Bornhorst

I am sure appreciating the gift of Bougainvillea!  Had to make a lot of lei this holiday seasons – Birthdays, an almost 50th wedding anniversary (Masami and Pearl) and hostess gifts for the Hostess with the mostest.

I made flower arrangements for some, but the gift of a hand sewn lei is true aloha.  Yes a florist would have been faster and easier (except for the driving and parking!) but where’s the fun in that? I also know that mine are grown in Hawaii and are chemical free.

With the weird weather and things blooming out of time I did find a few Plumeria, and Pua keni keni.  My na`u or native Gardenia has been blooming like crazy, stimulated by the bountiful rains and the super moons…. I think….  The buds of na`u make for an amazing lei.  I pick them as buds, put them in tiny vases or in the fridge immersed in water, if I really want to slow down the blooming and unfurling phase.


But I didn’t have quite enough, so I looked around my garden and my neighborhood and went AH hah!  Bougainvillea!  This plant is a winter bloomer, the short days of winter stimulate it to bloom (just like Poinsettias) Bougainvillea are native to Brazil and Poinsettias to Mexico…

The bright Bougie “flowers” that catch our eyes are actually colorful bracts, or modified leaves. The true flowers are white and peek out from the bracts.  Collect the flowers in a bag, clean and pluck them and start stringing.  I like to watch recorded surf meets on TV when I string a lei.

It takes me back to small kid time where we would make lots of lei, mostly from Plumeria and bougainvillea, abundant in our neighborhood and easy to string.  The other great thing about Bougies is that they dry well and retain some of their color.

For years we had the purple Bougies, quite thorny and apt to go wild.  Our family had a rule: NO Bougies planted in the ground, after my dad battled a wild thorny purple one for over 10 years, getting poked and mad, and killed our prized rainbow plumeria in the process.  (Always read the labels when using chemicals, or hire a professional)

As a landscape designer I always caution my clients to think long and hard before planting one in the ground.  They are way more manageable in a pot.  I also dislike pruning big wild ones due to the thorns.

If you have a wild hillside and need color – Grow for it, plant them in the ground.  They are great on the freeway embankments and so pretty.  They are also a xeric or less thirsty platn.  I love seeing them in Kona and in Kalaupapa.

We got many new varieties thanks to the vision of Paul Weissich of the Honolulu botanic gardens and the plant connections of the late Donald Angus, in the 1960s and early ‘70s.  Together they collected and legally imported new and wonderful varieties like ‘Miss Manila’ (peach and colored a hybrid from the P.I.) and the double flowered ‘Carmencita’.  Plant sales were wild events in those days, with people lining up to get these new exciting varieties.  Today they are part of the landscape and many don’t know how much effort it took to bring them here.

The na`u or native gardenia, G. brighamii, was brought back from the brink of extinction, by Conservationists and horticulturists.  Today many are grown in gardens and their unique perfume makes for a very nice lei, hair adornment or gorgeous native Hawaiian addition to your garden.  It’s also very important to protect and nurture them in the wild, by controlling weeds, feral animals and wildfire.


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