I’m dreaming of a white bougainvillea

On the Trail



I know, I know—nearly everyone this time of year is humming that old chestnut, “White Christmas.” With apologies to the mellifluous Der Bingle, I’m dreaming of a white bugambilia.

My holiday heart is warmed by the recollection of a vast mounded bougainvillea plant (bugambilia in Spanish; bougie in slang). The plant was so smothered in white bracts (the actual flowers are tiny and insignificant) that not a jot of green foliage was visible.

When I first moved west and lived in very rustic circumstances in Trancas Canyon, the gracious lady who gave me some space to live and garden on her land had a chain-link fence along the road. Each 10-by-10-foot panel was covered by bougainvillea of a different color.

When you are a native of California or Hawaii, shrubby, vivid bougainvillea is probably too ubiquitous to make a fuss over. But when you’re a gardener who’s come here from the frozen Northeast, year-round blooming bougie registers as a super-spectacular knockout.

So my landlady’s bougainvillea fence left an indelible impression on me, especially the white variety. All of the other colors—orange-gold, raspberry red, pale pink and gold-tinged pink—bloomed well yet did not display the vigor to cover their respective fence panels.

Ah, but “Big Snowy”—as the white plant was nicknamed—was another story. The white variety consumed its fence panel and infiltrated a few more panels up and down the line with its bountiful streamers of fluttery white bracts. Wind shredded its colorful brethren but had little impact on Big Snowy because the shrub was so remarkably dense as to be impenetrable. It clung to its allotted fence panel as if laboriously woven in place link by link.

When my landlady’s husband arrived to trim Big Snowy he brought a varied arsenal of choppers and loppers and was still thwarted by the monstrously tenacious shrub.

In my years gardening in rural Agoura I’ve only once successfully grown a bougainvillea, and that was but for one summer season. Bougainvilleas are among the first shrubs to succumb to frost in our area of the Santa Monica Mountains. They usually will recover, but it’s a long wait. In the interim, you’re left with a huge ugly mass of withered brown debris in the remainder of your winter-hardy garden.

So for this Christmas season I decided to gift myself with a reasonably sized white bougainvillea and keep it indoors as a house plant on a sunny windowsill.

Call me wary, call me nostalgic, call me in need of a shot of Big Snowy’s bugambilia bravado. December can be a rough time for a diehard summer worshipper like me. But I’ll try to hold on just as Big Snowy clung to the fence panel—a strong and beautiful example for this winter wimp.

Glasser is a freelance writer. To reach her, send an email to whirlawaygig@gmail.com.