The Secrets Of Bougainvillea: Everything You Need to Know

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.

What I’ve Learned About Bougainvillea

a large magenta bougainvillea in full bloom is trained to climb up & over a garage door

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 Does Bougainvillea Need to Thrive?


They need at least 6 hours a day to produce all that color we love.

Not enough sun = not enough bloom.

Warm Temperatures

They love the 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.

Drier Climates

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 the native soil is what they like.  like. 

Close up of a white Bougainvillea in full bloom this is bougainvillea mary palmer's enchantment

How to Choose Your Own Bougainvillea

They come in many colors, types & sizes. Colors run the gamut from white all the way to purple. Double-flowered varieties are available too.

I’ve already done a post showing some of these options so be sure to check it out.

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.


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. For more info check this post on “how to plant bougainvillea to grow successfully: the one thing to know.


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 are 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. If you want more blooms, check this post: How I Prune & Trim My Bougainvillea For Maximum Bloom.


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.

close up of an orange & pink bougainvillea this is bougainvillea rosenka


The only pests I’ve seen on mine are the bougainvillea loopers.  These are small caterpillars that 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”. 


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 easy 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.


It’s a crapshoot. 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! 

Purple Bougainvillea with chartreuse variegated foliage growing on a pot this is bougainvillea golden jackpot

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.  


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!


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 many 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.

Happy gardening & thanks for stopping by,

Signed by Nell Foster

Want to learn More About Bougainvillea? Check Out These Care Guides Below!

Plus These Gardening Tips!

This post may contain affiliate links, you can read our policies here.

Similar Posts


  1. Hi! Do you have any advise of how to use the Bougainvillea for flower arrangements? I will get married next year and I wanted to plant around 200 plants divided in pots and ground planting so I have enough to work with. I have noticed though that they are very sensible once they are cut down, and I would like to understand how to better work with it.
    Maybe drying the branches? I wouldn’t know how to do it

    Thank you!

  2. Hi Pamela – Congratulations! I don’t have any advice for you on this matter. I tried cutting bougainvillea a few times & using it as a cut flower but the flowers & leaves wilted almost immediately. Nell

  3. I have a bougainvillea that I purchased 3 years ago. When I bought it it had beautiful lavender blooms on it. I didn’t leave it in the plastic pot it came in, but have brought it inside every winter, trimmed it back and it has done well. My problem is that it hasn’t bloomed since I purchased it. It gets plenty of sun so I know that isn’t the problem. I had read that I should pinch off the tips and give it a good fertilizer and let it get to the point of looking wilted before watering again. I have done all of this and the plant itself is very healthy looking and growing, but I still can’t get blooms. What else can I try. I’m in NC by the way.

    Thank you,

  4. Hi Kathy – Common causes for a bougainvillea not to bloom are: not enough sun, not enough heat, too much water, or too much fertilizer. I encourage flowering with tip pruning. I’ve never grown one indoors but know you need high light, low water. Nell

  5. I bought my first 2 bougies today: Alice White (no info on the pot or sales slip – so didn’t know it only grows to 5 feet-ish). Second one is a Johnny Walker (again, no info on the pot or sales slip).

    I can’t find Johnny Walker anywhere on Bougainvillea sites – but I do see James Walker….. I’m hoping this plant will cover a trellis but have no clue!

    Hoping you can fill me in with some info. Appreciate your site! You are one busy lady!!

  6. Hi Jane – Miss Alice (the name I know it by) is a compact variety with white flowers that’s more of a slow grower. I’ve never heard of B. Johnny Walker. James Walker is a popular one & grows to 20 -25’tall. Nell

Comments are closed.