By Susan Salisbury, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
Apr. 17, 2006
Addison Mizner knew a thing or two about bougainvillea. The renowned 1920s-era architect and fashioner of Boca Raton knew the brightly flowering plant lent an air of romance and an intense dose of color to the buildings he designed. The variety he preferred, known as New River or Palm Beach Purple, is still the signature plant on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach today, where it graces archways and walls. But Mizner might not have known one of the most important things to know about bougainvillea — how to avoid the thorns.
The 50 employees at Bougainvillea Growers International west of Boynton Beach do know, and put it into practice every day: Never reach deep within the plant to trim it. With 45 acres devoted to bougainvillea and revenue of more than $3 million on annual sales of 1 million plants, privately held BGI says it’s the largest grower of bougainvillea in the United States. While many Florida nurseries sell bougainvillea, only a few others focus on it, and they are all 10 acres or less.
Although BGI does not sell directly to the public, its plants are sold primarily in Florida and in 39 other states, at retailers and landscapers. The plant, native to Brazil, is a vine that is available in several forms — as a bush in 2- to 25-gallon pots; a trellis in 2- to 45-gallon pots; and a patio tree from 3- to 25-gallon pots. It also comes in a 10-inch hanging basket. Angela Basgan, a Palm Beach Gardens resident and real estate investor shopping recently at an area Lowe’s, loaded her cart with a 7-gallon trellis-style fuchsia bougainvillea. The plant had a BGI tag. “I like the way bougainvillea climbs. I’m going to put it on my fence,” Basgan said. “This is my daughter’s favorite color.”
BGI was founded 12 years ago by Tom Scannell, 44, a soybean, cotton and rice farmer in Louisiana and Arkansas who got tired of growing those crops because of the huge economies of scale they require to succeed. He also wanted to live somewhere more urban, and he had family members in Delray Beach. Scannell bought a 5-acre plot that had been home to a palm nursery that had fallen into disrepair. He said he thought there was a demand for a nursery that grew only bougainvillea, which require a lot less water than the other tropical plants they are sometimes raised with. Other nurserymen told him he was wrong. “I got a lot of negative feedback. They thought there wasn’t a market for bougainvilleas,” Scannell said. “They said, ‘Grow ficus or areca palms.’ I went into it real slow.” Now the bougainvillea business has taken on a life of its own. “You don’t want to be part of the pack. I like doing something different,” Scannell said.
With more than 1,000 people a day moving to Florida, the demand for landscape plants is unrelenting. “Economy of scale is kicking in to the nursery business. Everyone wants more for less every year,” he said. “It’s not an easy business. We are passionate about it.” Carolyn Pendleton-Parker, a landscape architect with Sanchez & Maddux in Palm Beach, said that in her 25 years in the business, bougainvillea has never been out of style. “We just shipped hundreds of them to Paradise Island to a home in the Ocean Club,” Pendleton-Parker said. “It can hide flaws. It also adds romance and a veil of mystery over a building. It is a softening agent.” It’s easy to see the uplifting impact of bougainvillea’s color at BGI, where landscapers and other visitors can’t help but break into a smile when they look over the startling sea of neon purple, pink, red, white, yellow and orange bougainvillea. The company’s focus on the one plant has led to other aspects of specialization, including a bougainvillea-specific fertilizer. After ten years of experimentation, BGI’s growers developed a mixture of potassium, nitrogen and micro-elements such as zinc, iron, magnesium, manganese and copper that yielded healthy plants with bountiful blooms. They named the fertilizer Bougain. More than 10,000 2-pound jars of Bougain have been sold since it was first marketed in 2004.
Paige Boehlke, wholesale manager at Horizon Nursery in Fort Pierce, which buys from BGI, said the diversity of the trainable plant is part of its appeal. “You can get them in a bush form and keep them short as a hedge, or you can teach them to vine. They prefer to be neglected,” Boehlke said. “They can be contorted into all kinds of things to make them cool and are great for getting privacy screening quickly.” Not only that, they need next to no maintenance or water. “The drier they are, the more bloom there is. It is a great combination for developers and for homeowners, or for seasonal people who leave town,” she said. “If it does not get watered, it does not die.” Alice Alexander, a landscape designer who owns Alice’s Wonderland Designs in Boca Raton, said bougainvillea should be placed properly to allow lots of room for growth. “I place them very carefully because they are very thorny,” Alexander said. “They are great to allow to grow out naturally, then cut back real hard. They bloom from new growth. That is where you get the spectacular blooms.”
Copyright (c) 2006, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.