The Secrets Of Bougainvillea: Sharing All I Know About This Colorful Plant
What I’ve Learned About Bougainvillea
I’ve done a few posts about bougainvillea but this one is straight up everything I know about it including planting and care. I worked at a nursery in Berkeley, CA that carried bougainvillea and that’s where I first learned a few things about it. I’ve since moved south and in this part of the state, it’s seemingly everywhere. Love it or hate it you can’t go 2 blocks without a bougainvillea sighting. Lots of colors, sizes, shapes and forms make it a very common landscape plant – especially fitting with the Mediterranean and Spanish architecture here in Santa Barbara. I’m in the “love it” category in case you’re wondering.
My Bougainvillea glabra at the end of the driveway always draws oohh & aahhs – it’s a riot of color. Watch the video below & you’ll see how it looked in early Feb.
What They Need: Sun – They need at least 6 hours a day to produce all that color we love. Not enough sun = not enough bloom. Warm temps – they love heat. 1 or 2 nights of a light frost won’t harm them but anything more that could. The recommended USDA zones are 9B through 11. They’re better suited to drier climes – we don’t get rain here for 8 or 9 months out of the year. Well drained soil – they’re not too fussy about soil type but it must drain freely. A mixture of loam & organic compost worked into native soil is what they like. like.
Choosing A Bougainvillea: They come in many colors, types & sizes. I’ve already done a post showing some of these options so be sure to check it out. Colors run the gamut from white all the way to purple. Double flowered varieties are available too. You can get 1 with variegated foliage if you want some real pizazz in the garden. There are ground cover & dwarf forms if you don’t want a monster plant. And pay attention to height because some of the taller varieties don’t get as tall as others. No lack of choices regarding choosing a bougainvillea.
Planting: Bougs are tough as can be but are big babies when it comes to their roots. They don’t like to have them disturbed. You’ll have much better luck if you leave them in the grow pot when planting. I cut the rim off & make slits in the sides & bottom of the pot. Dig the hole twice as wide as deep & add in a good amount of loam (you don’t need this if your soil drains freely) & organic compost. Water it in very deeply. If you want it to grow against a wall or fence, then angle it that way.
Watering: 2 words – water deeply. Bougainvillea likes to be watered well & have it drain out. After established, they’re drought tolerant. My Bougainvillea glabra didn’t get any water for 9 months last year & it’s lookin’ great. Overwatering = no color (not to mention rot!).
Pruning / Trimming: They need it as they’re very vigorous growers. I give both of mine a harder pruning in mid-winter to set the shape I want them to be later on in the year. I do this when the evenings are starting to warm a bit. You don’t want to prune them if there’s any danger of frost on the horizon. I do a few lighter prunings, or trimmings, after each flowering cycle during the seasons to keep them in that shape. The flowering cycles tend to run every 2 months. Be sure to wear gloves – the majority of bougs have long thorns. Blood has been shed! They put out long, fleshy water shoots so be sure to prune those out – they mess up the shape. Bougainvilleas bloom on new wood. More pinching = more color.
Fertilizing: I’ve never fertilized mine & they bloom just how I want them to. There are lots of bougainvillea fertilizers on the market but the one that we recommended at the nursery was also for palms & hibiscus. I don’t do this either but they’d probably enjoy a good dose of organic compost or worm compost every year.
Pests: The only pests I’ve seen on mine are the bougainvillea loopers. These are small caterpillars which chew away at the leaves. You’ll see black droppings around the base of the plant. I just leave them be because they don’t appear until mid-summer or so & never permanently damage my plants. BT or neem oil sprays are what is recommended to keep infestations under control. Besides, too many butterflies & hummingbirds visit my plants so I want them to enjoy the flowers “au natural”.
Training: Bougainvilleas don’t cling or attach themselves so you need to train them. As I noted above in “planting”, angle them towards whatever they’ll be growing on. They’re not hard to train but it does take a little effort. Without support, they just flop down & can become a sprawling low blob. On a wall – If you have a chain link fence, after a little initial guidance, it will attach itself. Otherwise, you’ll need to provide some guidance in the form of eye hooks & wire or something like that. On a trellis or arbor – Attach it with tie & train & prune it as it grows. The new growth is easily to bend. Hedge – just keep on pinching & pruning out all that soft growth. Not as much flowering though. As a tree – gradually started taking out the other stems to get it to 1 main truck. I did this with my Bougainvillea Barbara Karst.
Transplanting: It’s a crap shoot. See “planting” above. If you must try, make sure you get the whole root ball. Dig a very large hole & add plenty of those amendments.. Keep it well watered & hope for the best. They’re a very common plant & not very expensive so I’d recommend buying a new one.
Uses In The Landscape: Bougainvilleas are very tough & very versatile. Use them as a vine, ground cover, hedge or tree. On arbors, trellis’, fences, buildings & walls. In containers & hanging baskets. I could add topiary or bonsai because here in Santa Barbara I’ve seen it pruned into the shapes of a large basket & swan. Now that’s an Edward Scissorhands at it’s finest!
In Containers: They do well. If it’s a larger growing variety, just make sure the pot is large too. It must have drain holes to enable the water to flow through. You will need to water them more often than when in the ground. A container enables you to wheel your bougainvilleas into a garage or covered porch (or a conservatory if you’re lucky) for a month or 2 if you’re borderline zone 9b.
Winterizing: If you must have one, see above. We’re in zone 10a & can get a light frost for a night or 2. They do just fine. This winter was very mild for us but in colder years, more leaves have dropped off my plants & flowering hasn’t started as early. When I lived in San Francisco there were 5 or 6 straight nights of frost years ago. In many parts of the Bay Area, this knocked bougainvilleas out & they didn’t recover. We heard many sob stories at the nursery that Spring!
Indoors: I have absolutely no experience in regards to this. Bougainvilleas need a lot of sun & heat so I imagine you wouldn’t get any blooms. There are much better houseplants you can choose if you want flowers.
Another thing I learned early on is that this colorful plant doesn’t make a good cut flower. It wilts almost immediately. Too bad because they scream “look at me!” when in full bloom. How do you feel about bougainvillea?
Other posts I’ve done about bougainvilleas: