The author lives in a quiet seaside community in lower Puna on the Big Island. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.
Bougainvillea is a tropical perennial cherished for its long-lasting, brilliantly colored flowers. The spectacular blooms brighten and magically transform many ordinary gardens, courtyards, terraces, patios into exotic paradise getaways!
Bougainvillea (botanical name Bougainvillea spectabilis) is native to South America. It was discovered by French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville during his extraordinary circumnavigation voyage in 1766-1769.
Much to the delight of bougainvillea growers and enthusiasts, there are now hundreds of varieties available worldwide! The flowers come in all sizes and shapes and a stunning array of colors: red, magenta, fuchsia, gold, orange, purple, pink, coral, lavender, and white.
Petals or leaves?
Bougainvillea flowers appear to have thin, papery petals. However, these colorful parts are not actual petals, but modified leaves, also called bracts. The real flowers are small, tubular-shaped, usually white, sprouting at the center of each bract cluster.
The bracts can be short or elongated, flat or ruffled, single or double, depending on the variety. Some hybrids even produce bi-color bracts which come in two or three contrasting colors!
Landscaping with bougainvillea
Bougainvillea is a hardy and versatile garden plant. There are many landscaping choices for bougainvillea:
- Tall shrub/hedge (as privacy screens, borders, or along walls)
- Flower beds (mix dwarf varieties for mass planting)
- Containers (great for pool patio, terrace, or balcony)
- Hanging baskets (use trailing/cascading cultivars for visual effect)
- Topiary (select compact, bushy cultivars for easy care)
- Bonsai (requires a lot of patience and special pruning skills)
- Arbor/trellis/pergola (will climb and quickly cover the entire structure)
Bougainvillea flowering seasons
In warm climates, bougainvillea blooms at the beginning of the summer, usually April-May, when there is plenty of high temperatures and intense sunlight. The blooming period can last 3-4 weeks.
Different bougainvillea varieties may have different blooming seasons and habits. Some hybrids can bloom year-round. However, most bougainvillea will take a break after each booming period, stop producing flowers for a month or two, before starting all over again.
Bougainvillea growing in containers can be forced to bloom by not watering the plant for a few weeks. Pinch off all the leaves (to preserve moisture) and let the plant go semi-dormant. Then resume watering regularly. The plant will come back to life quickly, sprouting new leaves and producing flowers abundantly.
Choosing bougainvillea colors
Select a cultivar with bright, flashy color (crimson red, hot pink, deep purple) if planting as a stand-alone specimen. It will practically scream "Look at me!" and instantly attract attention. Plant it near a focal point in the garden like a water fountain, gazebo, rock wall, etc.
Combine bougainvilleas with different colors to create a vivid, eye-catching contrast. For example, red and orange varieties pair well together, giving the garden an exciting "hot" look. Others in various shades of pink, lilac, or lavender will add a calm, soothing touch.
White bougainvillea mixes beautifully with all other colors. It also looks terrific by itself, producing cascades of white blossoms that resemble a giant bridal bouquet!
5 Tips for growing bougainvillea
Bougainvillea is a sun-loving plant and cannot tolerate shades! A minimum of 6-7 hours of direct sunlight is required. The more sun exposure, the more blooms! Plant it in west or south-west facing location so that the plant can receive maximum sunlight. If planted in a container, be sure to place it in a bright, sunny area in the yard. Bougainvillea planted in shady spots will only produce lush green leaves and no flowers!
Bougainvillea is an excellent drought-resistant plant; it doesn’t need much watering once established. However, during the hot, dry summer months, water the plant once every two days to keep the roots cool. Let the soil partially dry out between each watering. Bougainvillea does not like to have soggy feet! Over-watering makes the leaves turn yellow and drop. It may also cause root rot, and the plant will die.
Bougainvillea prefers well-drained soils. If planted in containers or hanging baskets, use a mixture of 40% sandy soil, 30% potting soil, and 30% rich compost or peat moss. If planted in the ground, make sure the soil is not clay-heavy or compacted, preventing good drainage. Amend the clayey soil by adding compost materials like rotting garden wastes, wood chips, or manure. Seaweed is also an excellent choice as it adds more minerals to the soil.
Bougainvillea needs a lot of nutrients to produce masses of gorgeous flowers! Therefore, it is best to use organic compost made of kitchen wastes (fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, eggshells) in addition to well-composted garden wastes (grass clippings, dead leaves). If using chemical fertilizer, select one with high nitrogen (good for leaf and root growth) and phosphorous (promotes flowering). As a rule of thumb, fertilize the plant once a month using organic compost and every three months if using chemical fertilizer.
Pruning is essential to keep bougainvillea happy and healthy. Because bougainvillea blooms on new shoots, pruning will encourage it to produce more shoots and, therefore, more flowers. Prune after each blooming period to get rid of faded flowers. The plant can spend energy sending out new shoots before blooming again. Pruning will also keep the plant in manageable size and shape. Hint: save the pruned cuttings to start new plants!
The photos in this article were taken by the author in the Puna district (USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 12b) on the Big Island of Hawaii, and also in Thailand and Bali, Indonesia.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Viet Doan
Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on June 27, 2021:
Thank you Dora, Peggy, and Liz for your wonderful comments. We are from different parts of the world yet we are all here for the love of bougainvillea! I would like to visit the Greek islands some day and see the brilliant bougainvillea blooming in those whitewashed villages on the cliffs. It's on my bucket list!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on June 27, 2021:
Thanks for the smart facts on the bougainvillea. For the first time, I'm noticing that the great color is from the leaves, not the petals. Good information well-presented.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 27, 2021:
I have a fairly new potted bougainvillea, so read this with interest. I'll be trimming it soon! That beautiful plant grows in the ground in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas where I lived as a teenager. Where we live now in Houston, it would not survive freezing weather which is why I keep it potted.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 27, 2021:
I used to enjoy seeing bougainvillea when we travelled around the Mediterranean area. They always made eye catching photos. This is a very interesting and well-illustrated article.