Jeanne Baret’s Bougainvillea

The small town of Lightning Ridge in Australia is a long way from the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. A muted palette of red dirt, straw yellow grasses and grey-green gum trees typify the landscape of the former. The latter’s lush green jungles are another world – one of exuberant greens, yellows, pinks and reds. It may seem a curious endeavour to link these two places, but in fact the connection is anything but tenuous. The connection is a plant, introduced to the western world by a woman dressed as a man. A woman who, in the late 18th century, was the first female to circumnavigate the globe. The plant? Bougainvillea. The woman? Jeanne Baret.

Here is a story:

In 1766 a French guy called Louis Antoine de Bougainville decided he wanted to circumnavigate the globe. He got permission from the king, packed up two ships, the Etoile and the Boudeuse, staffed them with 330 crew and added in a few big-wigs for good measure. One of them was Philibert Commerson – a precocious botanist who, according to historian Glenys Ridley, was banned from visiting his university’s botanic gardens because he kept digging up plants for his herbarium!

With Commerson came his valet, apparently a young man, but actually a woman called Jeanne Baret. She had been living with Commerson in Paris prior to the trip, as his housekeeper, lover and assistant. She had extensive botanical knowledge, though how she had acquired it at a time in which women’s interest in botany was frowned upon is unknown. Baret’s knowledge and practical support was very important to Commerson, but as women were banned from French navy ships at that time, the only way she could accompany him was to pretend to be a man.

Baret strapped her breasts flat with strips of linen and boarded the ship. For nearly two years, she concealed her gender, although according to Glenys Ridley in The Discovery of Jeanne Baret (2010), there was ongoing suspicion amongst the crew. At one time she told them that she was a eunuch, hoping that this might quell their curiosity.

In 1768 the expedition landed in Rio de Janeiro. At the time, Commerson was laid up with a leg wound and couldn’t leave the ship. “It was Baret who had ventured inland and had bought back the showy tropical vine that would be named in honour of the expedition’s commander: Bougainvillea,” writes Ridley. As was the way back then, Commerson owned the ‘discovery’ and designated for whom it would be named – ascribing his friend’s surname to one of the most widely used tropical plants on earth. From Singapore to Sydney, Los Angeles to Columbo, Dubrovnik to Durban, it’s hard to think of a more ubiquitous garden plant than Bougainvillea. And so, Bougainville’s name is repeated and repeated and repeated. Baret’s is not.

Over 6000 species of plants were collected by Commerson and Baret on the voyage. Over seventy species of plant, animal, insect and mollusk were named Commersonii, a handful were named after Bougainville, and a few of the other officers on the ship were lucky enough to to have various species named after them. Baret, the knowledgeable and intrepid female botanist responsible for much of the collecting, had but just one species named after her by Commerson – Baretia bonafida – a scraggly green plant endemic to Madagascar. As is the way of taxonomy, this species has since been re-classified into the genus Turraea. Of all the thousands of species Jeanne Baret helped collect, none bare her name.

A ‘proper’ appreciation of nature was considered a mark of eighteenth-century female refinement, yet it was considered ‘unladylike’ to go so far as to seek out the accurate Latin descriptor for a plant species

Glenys Ridley

Baret’s invisibility is unsurprising. “Baret lived then in a time of intense debate about women’s exposure to scientific knowledge”, writes Ridley. “A ‘proper’ appreciation of nature was considered a mark of eighteenth-century female refinement, yet it was considered ‘unladylike’ to go so far as to seek out the accurate Latin descriptor for a plant species. Even if she had returned to France with the rest of Bougainville’s expedition in 1769, Baret could not have expected any public recognition of her work for the expedition: A female stowaway was a curiosity, but a female botanist was a breach in the natural order of things.”

The natural order of things, like the binomial classification system, was defined by men. I’ve written plenty about the value of botanical names and the system within which they sit, primarily because contained within each name is a story, and often a clue as to who the plant might be related to and where it comes from. I value it still, but increasingly I realise how blind I’ve been. There’s a whole lot of other stories that have never been deemed worth of inclusion within this system of classification because they’re stories not penned by the men who made the system, or the men who benefited from it. Jeanne Baret’s story had no name to hold it, no name to carry it into the future. No name to connect her to the thousands of plants she collected throughout the Pacific. Her story was, for a long time, untitled.

Photographer Nicole Reed discovered Jeanne Baret a few years back. She was shooting images in Los Angeles and noticed how ubiquitous bougainvillea was throughout the city. She began to research the plant and soon learned about Baret. “Bougainvillea became so much more important to me because of her story. Being a woman in a male dominated industry, it really struck a chord. I decided to document the plant everywhere I went from then on.”

Last year Nicole took a road trip to the mining town of Lighting Ridge, in north western New South Wales. “When I arrived, I was surprised to see how prolific the plant was. It was everywhere, in gardens, on the side of the roads, up fences, covering houses. I spent about three quarters of my time there photographing bougainvillea.” All the images accompanying this essay were shot during Nicole’s time in Lighting Ridge.

Bougainvillea is an exuberant beast. It’s a sturdy, highly adaptable and opportunistic plant. I don’t know much about the inclinations of the man it was named after, but I feel like its manner might well reflect that of the woman who collected it over 300 years ago, of whom until recently, I’ve known very little about. Until recently, I called the plant Bougainvillea without question, but now I think it deserves a name change. Baretia has a nice ring, don’t you think?

Postscript: In 2012, after hearing a radio interview with Glenys Ridley, Eric J Tepe, an American botanist and Solanacea specialist, decided it was time for Baret to receive some recognition. He named a new species from southern Equador and northern Peru Solanum baretiae.