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The story of a magical plant

The bougainvillea at 1923 Webster Street.

Story and photograph by

This is a story about kindness, determination, beauty — and an unusual bougainvillea plant.

Over the years, the front yard of the little house at 1923 Webster Street had become a junkyard, its wooden fence a dilapidated eyesore. The kindly owner, who had raised her family there, was too old and frail to do anything about it.

In April 1993, her next-door neighbor offered to plant a garden, turning a neighborhood blight into a blooming oasis.

At the nursery selecting plants, the neighbor, Loretta Bakker, saw a small Tahitian Gold bougainvillea with unusual gold and fuchsia bracts. “I’d give this plant three years,” the nurseryman said. “This variety only grows in warm Southern California climates. It may not make it here, but if you can keep it alive for three winters it may survive.”

“I’ll take it,” said Bakker.

One winter went by, then two winters, then came the third, which was exceptionally cold. By spring, the plant had lost its leaves and everyone but Bakker pronounced it dead. Finally she agreed that if there were no sign of life by the end of May, she would take it out. By mid-May, however, tiny green leaves began to sprout and slowly the plant came back to life. A scant few blossoms appeared, and not until August.

Although it began to thrive as the years went by, its beautiful gold and fuchsia blossoms still did not arrive until August, and then only on the sunny south side.

In 2004, the owner of the little house died. Contractors descended and began to tear out the garden. Bakker asked them to spare the bougainvillea. They did — the only plant that survived. A wooden safety barrier surrounded it during construction. “The plant just sat there looking dilapidated, but hanging on,” she recalled.

When construction was completed, workers began pouring concrete. Again she interceded. A small circular opening was left around the base to make it possible to water the plant.

Bakker returned to the nursery for advice on how to care for what had grown into a substantial plant — an island in a concrete ocean. The nurseryman rolled his eyes. The odds were slim it would survive. But she followed his advice and watered the plant only once every three weeks, no more and no less, in spring and summer only. She entered it on her calendar and has never missed a watering.

In February, she does heavy pruning. In March, green leaves appear. In April, it begins to bloom. It displays 20 or more feet of lush blossoms, in unusually beautiful colors, until the rains come in November. The plant becomes dormant until the cycle begins again.

There is a sacred rite involved: Once a week during blooming season, she gives the plant a good shake to let the dry blossoms fall.