Story by Adrienne LaFrance
Photos by Jack Wolford
‘‘A bougainvillea seed
is a tiny little thing, the size of a small fly’s wing,” says Paul Weissich, “but they pop up into something of exceptional beauty and remarkable versatility.” Weissich would know, for this mild-mannered, quick-witted 85-year-old hasplayed a key role in bougainvillea’s modern presence in Hawai‘i. With the help of an eccentric flower enthusiast and world traveler named Donald Angus, Weissich introduced a kaleidoscope of new bougain-villea to the Islands in the 1960s.
The pair made a perfect team. Globetrotting Angus would meet bougainvillea growers across the world and practical Weissich would figure out how to get a single bare root from the growers’ plants to the Islands. First Weissich used some of Angus’ bougainvillea contacts in Kenya and what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and began to make complex arrangements to brighten Hawai‘i with dozens of new bougainvillea. For the plants themselves, the journey to the Islands was precarious. If they could live through a journey by cold cargo ship to a place halfway around the world, bougainvillea then faced systematic poisoning on arrival.
“We were very, very lucky with the bougainvillea,” recalls Weissich, marveling. “In those days, imported plants had to be bare root. They were inspected and gassed under pressure.”
But the “bougies,” as plant lovers affectionately call them, lived. And not only did they survive in Hawai‘i, they thrived. Soon after their arrival, the newest varieties exploded in popularity—in part, remembers Weissich, who is director emeritus of the Honolulu Botanical Gardens, because the botanical gardens “practically gave them away.
“We distributed them for about a dollar apiece,” he says. “We really wanted to get them into the local horticulture because they’re so beautiful!”