When is a Flower not a Flower?

When it is a bougainvillea!

Yes, I learnt pretty late in life that what I thought were the petals, are actually bracts! And what pray are bracts? Well, seems bracts are modified leaves! They grow above all other leaves, but below the petals. And no, bracts are not to be confused with sepals, which are the green, leaf-like things which cover the petals when the flower is still in bud stage!

Confused? Well I was. But when I looked more closely at the bougainvillea, I got it. Look closely and you will see small white flowers at the centre of what you would a minute ago have called a pink flower. (There are three such small flowers within each set of bracts, though you cant quite see them in the pic.)

bougainvillae flower

Bracts are often brightly coloured and have evolved to attract flowers. Our friend the bougainvillea is a great example of this, with bracts of magenta, pink, yellow, white, orange and every other colour! Another flower that is not a flower you think, is the poinsettia. The bright coloured petals are bracts. In grasses, each floret is covered by two bracts, and each group of florets has another pair of bracts at its base! The dried bracts are the chaff we remove from the grain!

A seemingly simple cheerful plant, which happily blooms for us on road-medians, along compound walls, in gardens. Fairly easy to grow as long as it gets enough sun and we take care not to over-water. But I have found three levels of complexity:

  1. The spelling. I just cannot get it right without the spellcheck! Yes, I know it is named after a person. But please can we do something about it?
  2. This bract-petal confusion.
  3. The woman who discovered it, while disguised as a man and who never got the credit (see our post ‘Colour and Cheer’, 15 Nov, 2018).

Simple is the new Complex! Or do I mean Complex is the new Simple?

–Meena

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