By Erin Marissa Russell and Matt Gibson
From the same family as four o’clocks and flowering tobacco, the beautiful blooms of bougainvillea aren’t primarily composed of the flower itself. Instead, much like the poinsettia’s “blooms,” the florid (usually) fuschia branches are made up of three bracts, which are versions of the plant’s regular leaves that change color when in bloom. The flower itself is tiny, tube-shaped, and either white or yellow, and we tend to see it as the center of the larger “flower.”
Although the fuchsia variety is standard and most common, many different shades of bougainvillea have been developed since Admiral Louis A. de Bougainville made the plant part of the botanical record on his 1768 journey to South America. Now these different varieties are available to home gardeners in hues including red, orange, pink, purple, white, or yellow, as described in the section below.
Varieties of Bougainvillea
There are over 250 known varieties of bougainvillea available, including thornless cultivars, giants, dwarf, and semidwarf plant types. Some of the best varieties available include:
Barbara Karst – A heat lover and young bloomer with bright red bracts that appear bluish-maroon in the shade.
California Gold – Golden yellow bracts.
Double Pink – Needs to be deadheaded regularly and trimmed back. Pink double blooms.
Jamaica White – White, green-veined leaves. Vigorous, young bloomer.
Juanita Hatten – Dark pink flowers, green leaves with gold markings.
Sundown – Apricot coloration, vigorous bloomer, heavy feeder.
Surprise – Bicolor pink and white flowers, easy bloomer.
Texas Dawn – Small pink flowers in huge clusters. Vigorous, needs regular pruning.
Vickie – Green and gold variegated leaves.
Growing Conditions for Bougainvillea
Bougainvillea plants have two simple growing requirements, full sun and a well draining soil. Some growers even add a little gravel to their soil to improve drainage. Though it is not a requirement, growing bougainvillea next to a wall or providing some trellis-like object for the plant to grow along can go a long way towards allowing your bougainvillea to grow to its full potential.
How to Plant Bougainvillea
Due to their thin, fibrous roots, bougainvillea plants are very sensitive to mishandling, so extra care needs to be taken when planting them to avoid disturbing their root systems in any way. To make planting bougainvillea easier, you may consider cutting down the sides of its container with a sharp, clean pair of scissors or garden shears.
Alternatively, gently tap around the edges of the container to loosen up the soil around the edges so that the plant easily slides out of the container when you turn it upside down. Either way, do whatever it takes to avoid touching the roots or you could easily kill the plant. The only touching of the root system that should occur is to very carefully cup the roots as you move the plant into its hole, just enough to keep them in place, as any minor disturbance of the root system could kill the plant.
Once you have picked out a spot to plant your bougainvillea, you need to dig a hole to plant it in. You will want to dig a hole that is large enough to place the plant into without damaging the roots. Allow a little bit of extra room to work with and dig the hole a little bit larger than the width of the plant container your bougainvillea came in. The hole doesn’t need to be massive, but just about 20 to 40 percent larger than the container should suffice.
Once you have dug the whole for placement, water it well and allow the water to drain thoroughly before placing the plant into its planting hole to avoid any occurrence of wet feet. You may also consider adding some phosphorus to the planting site as well, as bougainvillea responds well to high-phosphorus soil conditions. Place a small amount of high-phosphorus fertilizer in the bottom of the planting site and cover it with fertilizer so that the roots don’t come in direct contact with the fertilizer. Now that the site is prepared, it is time to relocate the plant.
If you are not able to easily get the plant to ease out of the container without disturbing the roots, you may want to consider cutting off the bottom of the container and placing the whole plant into the planting hole with the rest of the container still attached. Then, once the plant is where it needs to be, you can carefully cut the sides of the container down and gently remove them without disturbing the root system. Just be careful not to cut into the root system while cutting down the container. To help prevent cutting into the roots, make small, short cuts, chipping away at the length of the container as you go to avoid opening the shears too wide and accidentally clipping some of the plant’s sensitive roots in the process.
Once the plant is sitting in its new hole, carefully fill in soil around it until it is about halfway filled. Then water the site again and allow it to drain before filling in the rest of the hole with soil. Once the water has adequately drained, fill in the remaining spaces with soil and gently pack it in place with your hands.
To help avoid crown and root rot issues, you want to plant your bougainvillea higher than expected so that it is just above the surrounding soil. Bougainvillea plants should be slightly elevated so that the crown of the plant is sticking up from the ground slightly after it settles.
Care for Bougainvillea
Bougainvillea plants come from areas that don’t get much water, so they are accustomed to not having excess moisture. For this reason, you will want to avoid watering them every time you water your other garden plants.
If you give bougainvilleas too much water, they will weaken, and likely lose their colorful bracts in exchange for more green leafy growth. Occasionally provide bougainvilleas with a high-phosphate fertilizer. If the plant responds with too much growth, cut back on feeding. These plants are already quite prolific, so they won’t need much help in that department.
With prolific plants, grooming is always necessary, as is the case with bougainvilleas, and doing so will enhance the plant’s blooming capabilities. As soon as the first bracts start to drop in the spring, it is time to prune the plant’s excess growth, which should result in a new set of blooms and a shortened flowering period. This can be done anytime the plants look as if they need a trim between the spring and the fall, which is their extended flowering season.
As bougainvillea are known to grow to great lengths, many varieties require support, especially if you are wanting your plants to cover fence tops, spread across walls, or decorate arbors or other objects. Training your bougainvilleas is essential to get the plants to grow the way you want them to. In order to train the plants, you will need to install string or wire supports on whatever surface you are training them to grow along. When tying bougainvillea vines with string or wire, take care not to tie branches too tightly, as they are prone to breaking. Tie branches loosely, allowing plenty of wiggle room as the plant continues to grow.
Gently tuck bougainvillea branches around the supports and use them to guide the plant where you want it to go, placing them at regular intervals to achieve the desired look. If you are training the plant to grow in a vertical direction, use a plastic wire, as branches can easily snap, and plastic will be less abrasive than regular wiring or string. Remember to tie branches loosely, especially when training vertical growth.
How to Propagate Bougainvillea
Propagation of bougainvillea isn’t as simple as it is for many of the plants in your garden. For best results, you’ll need rooting hormone and a propagation case.
Begin in the spring, using clean, sterilized shears to take cuttings that are six inches long. Treat the ends of your cuttings with rooting hormone powder, then plant them in a mixture of perlite and soil that’s kept evenly moist. If you’re using a propagation case, set it to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius), and place it in a spot that gets bright filtered light. Roots take about eight weeks to develop and may be very difficult to achieve without the rooting hormone and propagation case.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Bougainvillea
Bougainvillea is quite resistant to pests and disease, as it’s an unfussy plant that thrives even in poor soils as long as there is plenty of drainage. However, every once in a while even the hardiest plants struggle with pests or diseases. If your bougainvillea has a health problem, it’s likely to be one of the issues listed here.
Aphids: Aphids are the most common pest to strike bougainvillea plants, and they’re a problem in many gardens. These tiny insects suck the juices from plants and congregate on the undersides of leaves, where their feeding results in deformed, curled, or withered foliage. These garden pests are so small that you can actually knock them out of their hiding places with a well placed jet of water from the garden hose. To go more on the offensive, you can also treat aphids with a homemade spray made of a liter of warm water, four or five drops of dish soap and a teaspoon of neem oil. Learn more in our article All About Aphids, and How to Kill Them.
Caterpillars & Bougainvillea Loopers: Most gardeners are familiar with the trouble that caterpillars can cause. Bougainvilleas have their own type of caterpillar, the bougainvillea looper, which can be brown or green and measures about an inch. These caterpillars fade into the plant’s branches and stems so well they are hard to spot, but you won’t have trouble seeing the damage they cause. Bougainvillea loopers munch scalloped holes in the edges of the plant’s foliage, since they eat leaves from the outside in. They start with the newest growth, the young shoots and tender new leaves at the tips of bougainvillea branches, before working their way down the branch to the older growth. You can deter all kinds of caterpillars by sprinkling diatomaceous earth around the plants you’d like to protect. Learn more in our article 8 Effective Ways to Get Rid of Caterpillars in the Garden.
Leafminers: The larval forms of several different moths and flies are referred to as leafminers because of the way they feed. Leafminers eat curlicue tunnels through the leaves they infest, and the insect itself will be at the end of the trail. Leaves of infested plants are gradually eaten away until they are completely skeletonized and will eventually drop from the plant. Leafminers can be fatal. Clean up the debris that tends to collect around the base of plants, as this is where leafminers tend to lay their eggs or spend their winters. Invasive weed plants can provide these insects with alternate habitats, so weeding in and around the garden is another way to keep leafminers at bay. For leafminer infestations that are more severe, you may need to protect plants using row covers or treat with neem oil. While neem oil won’t kill the insects, it does stop their most vital processes, including eating, mating, and flying—so in the long run, the effect is the same. Learn more in our article How to Fight Leafminer Insects.
Root Rot: Most of the effects of root rot are underground, where the symptoms first present themselves. The root systems of infected plants tend to be discolored to dark shades of brown instead of having the pale hue of healthy roots. Roots may also be soft or slimy. By the time the plant above ground begins to show signs of this underground damage, the effects are likely to be severe. Avoid dealing with root rot in your garden by being careful to provide plants with proper drainage and only give them sufficient water so they don’t have excess moisture pooled around their roots. Treat root rot by addressing the excess moisture and cutting away unhealthy roots with garden shears. When the root system is really water-soaked, you can lay the plant out with its roots exposed to the sunshine to allow it to dry out before putting it back into the ground. Learn more in our article How to Fight Stem and Root Rot.
Scale: For gardeners unfamiliar with scale insects, it can be hard to identify these bugs, as they look more like bumps or gnarls on a branch than like a living insect. You’re more likely to see the signs of a scale problem, which include withered foliage, black fungus on leaves or branches, sticky sap on plant surfaces, and a general appearance of ill health. If you can spot the tiny insects with shells on your plants, scrape them off with a twig or garden tool, and they should come off easily. Quarantine your infested plants, as scale insects will continue to spread through your garden if you don’t. You can treat for scale with insecticidal soap or horticultural oils as well as predator insects like Chilocorus nigritus or Lindorus lophanthae. Learn more in our article How to Fight Scale Insects.
Snails & Slugs: Almost every gardener will experience the damage that slugs and snails can cause at some point. Their damage can be differentiated from what caterpillars can do by the silvery trails snails and slugs leave behind. You can use diatomaceous earth as a line of defense around vulnerable plants just as you would to prevent caterpillar damage, or learn how to build an electrified barrier against these pests in our article How to Protect Seedlings from Slugs and Snails.
Spider Mites: Tiny spider mites feed on plant juices just like aphids, but unlike aphids, they release a toxin that leaves white spots on plant foliage along with telltale webbing. The easiest way to get rid of spider mites is with several rounds of high-pressure water from the garden hose, but you’ll need to keep at it to overcome an infestation. Parasitic mites or ladybugs can also be used to stamp out an invasion, or you can treat with a homemade spray of a liter of warm water, four or five drops of dish soap, and a teaspoon of neem oil. Learn more in our article How to Fight Spider Mites.
Thrips: Don’t panic just because you’ve spotted thrips in your garden, as many varieties are beneficial and won’t harm your plants. It’s when thrips appear alongside plant damage like wilted, bleached-looking, or streaked foliage, the frass that thrips leave behind when they feed, or chevron-shaped areas of discoloration that you have a problem. Spraying susceptible plants with insecticidal soap or placing a camphor tablet or bathroom deodorizer occasionally in your garden can keep thrips at bay. Learn more in our article How to Fight Thrips.
Whiteflies: The first thing many gardeners who experience a whitefly infestation notice is the sticky clear “honeydew” that whiteflies leave all over the plants they infest. This substance also tends to attract ants. Whiteflies also leave foliage flecked with white spots and congregate on the underside of leaves. If disturbed, they’ll take to the air. Yellow sticky traps and predators like ladybugs or lacewing larvae can be used against whiteflies. First, you should blast off any of the insects you can discourage with a targeted jet of water from the garden hose. Learn more in our article How to Fight Whiteflies.
Whether your neighborhood is already draped with bougainvillea or your plant will be the first on the block, you’re bound to get lots of joy out of this stunning tropical flower. In some climates, bougainvillea blooms through the winter, making it a perfect antidote to the cold-weather blues. In gardens where you can enjoy bougainvillea year-round and those where it’s a seasonal delight, gardeners agree that this quick-growing flower is a worthwhile addition.