Miller Time
Bougainvilleas: Plant Or Pest?
By Grady Miller
Apr 5, 2009 - 9:18:00 AM

There is a clear division between people in the world who can appreciate the flaming magenta of a bougainvillea abloom, and there is an under class of people known as “gardeners” and masochists.  Gardeners contend with the hands on tending of bougainvillea, and they deal with the unstoppable phenomenon and its curving, claw-like thorns, meanwhile members of the leisure class, like those socialites who flaunt blood diamonds, can bask on the rarified emotion of aesthetic appreciation.

The bougainvillea first came to my attention when a neighbor asked if I could trim mine, as it was grazing her head as she strolled past the Hollywood homestead.  That’s when I took a good look.  My head had been buried for months in the writing of a novel, and when my eyes confronted the growth of the bougainvillea it was prodigious: A whole clump of it was swallowing the gable in front of my house, and insinuating its thorny branches under the eaves.  It had shoots that, if left unchecked, would grow all the way to Orange County.

Into action I went, to help this damsel who was getting her head grazed by the plants.  Being quite macho I didn’t mind grasping the shoots, gloveless and getting scratched.  The older shoots have turned to wood and present the deadliest thorns; the tender young shoots can be pulled off with the naked hand.  Even working with the greatest care, I’d look down at my forearms and suddenly they were sweating blood where the skin had been scratched.  Once, after pulling down one of the thick tough branches just sawed off, I saw a swelling the size of a robin’s egg on the inside of my left wrist, accompanied by a dull pain.  I had felt nothing pierce my skin.  Then: the sudden egg-size swelling, accompanied by a sharp pain and the feeling that necrosis may set in at any moment.  I feared the fat black widows I’d seen in the neighborhood and made quick calculations for getting to en emergency room.

That’s when I turned to the Internet and discovered in an article from the University of Arizona that a symptom of getting pricked by bougainvillea was swelling.  Thank my lucky stars I didn’t read the posting “Pricked by a Bougainvillea,” where Cindy posted: “It is very very dangerous not to treat a wound from a bougainvillea... take it very seriously.... (I was told left untreated it could potentially spread the infection thru your body causing sepsis or staph infection-leading to death).” Hapless Cindy got a piece of her thorn-punctured foot cut out by a foot surgeon.  In my case the swelling eventually went down, the pain subsided and the flesh did not putrefy.  

Time had taught me many things about this hearty plant, whose origins horticulturists trace to an ancient region yonder the River Styx.  Bougainvilleas grow abundantly, with riotous expansion of their limbs.  Turn around after three weeks and they are out colonizing and ready to take over the neighborhood again.  They grow and grow despite drought, and they put forth amazing beauty, their blaze of purple petals.  They’re the invasive roses of the desert.  And they can fill a jumbo garbage container quicker than you can say Jack Black.  I have meanwhile made my truce with the bougainvillea.  When it comes to my daily allowance of masochism, dealing with bougainvillea sure beats the heck out of self-flagellation and leaching.  Both get the blood (or the lead) out, and it isn’t that the plant is inherently evil, for in return for its blooms, this gorgeous outlaw of floral beauty demands only to be tamed by human hands.  All they ask it that you buy a pair of pigskin gloves.  Yes, that is necessary.  Then there’s sweat and eternal vigilance.  My bougainvillea provides beauty year-round and does a public service, as well.  Take the plant out of my yard and you’d see me, crouched in front of a computer, writing in my boxer shorts.  The way I look at it is: I’ve now got the biggest bonsai in the world.  Listen, if you need me for anything, leave a message on my answering machine, I’m probably outside, pruning the bougainvillea.

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