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THE JUNGLE OUT THERE : A Fearless Interloper, Bougainvillea Has a Hold on L.A.

November 27, 1994|Wanda Coleman

Magenta rains briskly from above, clings to my hair. I'm caught in a light shower of bougainvillea.

For years now, I have observed this growth. Languid at first, now it extends, with an insatiable appetite for space. Almost surprising are the bursts of blush erupting from sturdy, thorny, yet elegant tendrils. In our neighborhood, on long walks, I've spotted several variations--white, orange, red-orange, red, purple. Knowing nothing of its origin, I'd always thought of it as exotic, of another tropical place, listened to it as if it were music--a fado guitar strummed in the back rooms of a smoky consciousness. Rhythm in the snap of leaflike bracts that are like hands clasping, clapping, cupping. I've heard rubber soles and boot heels hissing and rapping along finished mahogany. I've seen the ambitious legs of dancers expressing the hunger of torsos; weighty vines swaying like hips, a heaving, seductive, movement to the wind-song castings of a spell.

The jungle come to the city.

On certain mornings--that metacognitive kind, when dust and sunshine join in a way that epitomizes a season--I turn to see them scratching and peeking in against the window, divinely rose-colored eyes at the panes. Life seeing life and feeling more alive in that shared instance of seeing.

Or when drenched and bleeding afternoon sun. . .

Approaching home, we can see it, from half a block away, arching skyward, blanketing the aged roof. Pulling curbside to park, I can't resist looking once more to discover which virgin corner of our tiny lot has been violated. There now hangs a drape of magenta where a gardener-for-hire pruned back the small rosebushes that once annually banked the white wood fence in a blaze of bright yellow blooms. In spots, this renegade liana has become heavy and violently threatening, attempting to strangle all lesser bushes. It long ago overwhelmed our bird of paradise.

The slim, olive-skinned young Latino stands outside our house and looks up. We called and asked him to come by and give us an estimate on the job. His partner watches us from the truck. We're all looking up, necks craned. The bougainvillea is half as tall as the telephone poles. One hand on my hip, the other waving and pointing, I indicate how many feet I want trimmed from there, there and there. I want more sun coming in through the windows. My husband wants the assurance of privacy. When we finish telling him what we want, he stands back and takes another unenthusiastic look. Of course, he'll have to use a ladder.

"I'll call you with the estimate on Monday." Then he and his partner drive away. He never calls.

Plowing through reference books, I discover the name is French, the plant christened after the 18th-Century explorer, Louis de Bougainville, who found the species growing somewhere outside Rio de Janeiro.

Brazilian and beautifully deadly, it's the double-barbed hex of a curanadera . Beneath a verdant surface, the vines thicken into the dense brittle cording of self-strangulation. Dead yellowy-orange and magenta leaves litter our yard and the sidewalk outside. This may be a fire hazard, we think, every now and then attacking them with the rake, bagging them for discard. We have purchased a special knife, its serrated blade perfect for hacking the overgrowth obscuring doors and windows, weaving in and around the burglar bars.

Passers-by have to abandon the sidewalk to get around our little house, which promises to collapse one day soon, smashed not by an earthquake but under the weight of Bougainvillea spectabilis .

It has become a popular atmospheric component in the works of writers describing this region, a strong contender with the palm and the Joshua tree. Bougainvillea seems symbolic, metaphor for an unstoppable migration, an irreversible change introduced into our social topography.

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