How to Grow and Care for a Beautiful Bougainvillea
Bougainvillea Thrives in Temperate Climates
These beautiful vines are rapid growers and climbers, and prolific bloomers. They need a warm climate, full sun, and good drainage.
Bougainvillea is native to Central America, most of South America, the Caribbean Islands, Spain, parts of the United States, and many other warm climates. This gorgeous vine is available in many colors including hot pink (my favorite) red, purple, lavender, yellow, orange, pale pink, white, and white with pink-tipped edges.
What We'll Cover Here
- Planting tips
- Growing tips
- Spring bougainvillea care
- Keeping caterpillers away
- Summer bougainvillea care
- Winter bougainvillea care
- How to prune a bougainvillea
- Best bougainvilleas for pots and containers
Questions I Often Get About Planting Bougainvillea
Having a bougainvillea in your garden, either in a pot or in the ground, is always joyful due to the gorgeous flush of color. Like all plants, bougainvilleas start out relatively small, but will quickly take over the space provided for them, and then some. In spring and fall, these beauties (with the right care) will explode into a profusion of color, spreading their thorny branches to cover a wall or fence completely.
Where does bougainvillea grow best?
Bougainvillea is a hardy perennial, but it prefers the temperate climates of USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9 through 11. (Not sure which zone you live in? See map below.) Bougainvillea can also be grown as an annual or as a houseplant outside those zones. If you choose to grow them as annuals, be aware doing this can be quite expensive. A 3-foot tall bougainvillea can cost up to $50.
How quickly does bougainvillea grow?
Bougainvillea is among the fastest growing plants. Typically it will put on a startling 36 inches of growth every year, up to a limit of about 30 feet. With this in mind, choose a spot against a warm, protected wall where you want to add a BIG splash of color. Rest assured, you don't have to let the plant get that big! See tips for pruning your bougainvillea below, and be aware that, if you put it near a garden path, or near the door to your home, you will be pruning it frequently.
Is bougainvillea evergreen?
Yes. All plants drop leaves periodically, just as humans lose a few hairs daily. While your bougainvillea may briefly drop some throughout the year, it is classified as evergreen in mild climates and keeps its leaves year-round.
Does bougainvillea bloom all year?
No, a bougainvillea will typically bloom from April to December, with the heaviest bloom-time in spring and autumn. This can vary depending on where you live. For example, when we lived in central Florida, our heaviest bloom-time was early-to-mid spring and late autumn, both of which is when the weather is cooler. I once saw them blooming profusely in San Francisco in July -- the daytime temperature there was in the mid-60s.
How should I fertilize my bougainvillea?
Some gardeners recommend using a tablespoon of hibiscus fertilizer every 3 to 4 weeks in the spring and summer. Bougainvillea needs rich, acidic soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.0. Now that we live in Zone 8-b, I no longer grow this vine, but I sprinkled used coffee grounds around the one I had. I also put them around my azaleas, which also require acidic soil. If we don't drink all the coffee made in the mornings, I dilute it with plain water for my acid-loving plants, and pour it around them.
- Bougainvillea likes a lot of water when it is first planted, but once established, it does better with soil a little on the dry side. Take care to plant in an area with good drainage.
- Take care planting or replanting a bougainvillea. Don't handle the rootball any more than necessary, as the roots are fragile and can easily break. If the plant has been in the pot too long, and the roots are going round and round, they will need to be loosened. Otherwise, they will continue to go round and round, when they should be spreading out in their new home. When considering any plant for purchase, it's a good idea to lift the rootball out of the pot to see if the roots are going round and round. If they are, choose a different one.
- If it becomes necessary to prune any plant when installing it (for example, if a limb gets broken) always place your cut at a joint, taking care to cut on an angle, so water will run off rather than soaking into the raw wood.
Growing a Healthy Bougainvillea
Annual or Perennial?
Care and Watering
Zones 9 - 11
Grows perennially with flowers April to December.
When first planted or transplanted, the soil around a bougainvillea should be kept moist. Be sure to plant where it will have good drainage. After the plant is established it will prefer to be left on the dry side.
Prune your bougainvillea in winter after it is finished blooming (January is a good time). Always cut at a joint. Don't be afraid to prune aggressively, if needed. New growth will begin to emerge in a few weeks.
Zone 1 - 8
Grows as an annual outdoors or as a perennial in a container indoors.
For outdoor plants, protect the plant from frost by covering new growth with a tarp and mulching the roots. Indoor potted plants will bloom from May to December. Keep the plant well watered when first planted, but then keep dry for more flowers once established.
Prune the potted plant severely in before cold weather sets in, and take indoors. Apply a tablespoon of hibiscus fertilizer every 3 to 4 weeks in spring and summer. If it is grown outdoors, be prepared to lose the plant if your winter is less than mild.
Did You Know?
Bougainvillea "flowers" are actually a type of leaves called "bracts." The plant's actual flower is the tiny white blossom center of the bract, as seen in the photo above.
Spring Bougainvillea Care
When the spring peak of blooming has passed, your bougainvillea will still be blooming but with far fewer flowers. It's time to be on the lookout for pests that will eat the leaves and leave you with an unsightly plant, that has no flowers.
How to Keep Destructive Caterpillers Away
Above is what caterpillars did to my once-beautiful hot-pink bougainvillea. There was only one flower left on the entire plant, so I was not a happy gardener. The first photo is of one of the pests that did this. These guys come out only at night, but are sometimes still there in early morning. Sometimes they are so still they look like small sticks, or like the little brown stems left behind by spent blooms. Occasionally, they can be seen hanging from a tiny string of web, or on a leaf, boring into it. The ones I have seen range from about 1 to 3 inches long. Most are about an inch. The smallest ones are green in color. The largest ones are a greenish-brown. This one was a little over an inch long.
I took this guy (in a zip-closed snack bag) to my local master gardeners for expert advice -- this was before I became a master gardener myself. They said it was a caterpillar and not the kind that soon becomes a butterfly! I was told to get an organic product called Neem, and to spray my plant with it in the early morning or in the evening. The master gardeners I spoke with said they knew Home Depot and Sparr both carry Neem. I found it at Home Depot. I tried Ace Hardware first, as they are closer to my home; they did not have this product. Maybe they will got it later, as they said they had had several requests for it. Neem comes in a highly concentrated form, in a tiny bottle. Mix it two tablespoons per gallon of water, then pour some into a spray bottle for easy use. I used an empty gallon milk jug.
Summer Bougainvillea Care
In the summer heat, Neem oil — or any oil — will melt and slide right off of your plants. At times of temperatures in the high-80s Fahrenheit or above, insecticidal soaps will work best.
It is true that the insecticidal soaps will need to be sprayed after each rain, but they do work. I used to spray my pansies and mondo grass with cayenne pepper dissolved in water to prevent squirrels from eating them. It, too, has to be re-sprayed after a rain, but it's a lot cheaper than insecticidal soaps, and you probably already have some in your pantry.
Winter Bougainvillea Care
Your bougainvillea will be in full bloom in late winter/spring and fall. As the weather gets cooler and cooler, be sure your bougainvillea has good drainage to prevent possible root rot from having "soggy feet".
Also, make sure it is secured to its trellis to prevent wind damage. The older canes are thick, hard, and sturdy, but the new wood will be tender and very flexible. They can become broken in high winds. Wind and freeze damage can be cut away, allowing new growth to emerge. You may want to consider pruning it back a bit — after it finishes blooming, of course.
Protecting Bougainvilleas in Freezing Temperatures
In central Florida, where I lived when I first wrote this article, a hard freeze is considered 4 hours or more at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Hard freezes there are infrequent but do happen from time to time. In January, 2018, a hard freeze damaged a lot of plants, including some freestanding bougainvilleas; that is, those not protected by a wall or fence, a trellis, or the side of a building.
Mine was planted against a trellis on the wall of our garage, and was protected by that wall, as well as by the eaves of the roof overhang. My neighbor's bougainvillea (shown in the freeze damage photo above) and some hibiscus bushes are in a large planting bed that is in an open area of her backyard. Normally, this is not a problem, but in the event of a prolonged freeze, it leaves these tropical plants quite vulnerable; so they must be covered.
The plant in that photo suffered severe damage but it did survive. Green leaves can be seen on the bottom half of the plant. The dead portions can be always cut away after danger of additional freezing temps has passed. This will allow new growth to emerge at the site of the pruning, and on healthy areas below.
All free-standing tropical plants should be covered if there is a danger of a hard freeze, but DO NOT use plastic bags or sheets of plastic. Anywhere plastic touches the plant will be damaged. DO be sure to remove coverings as soon as possible after the sun is shining on the plants. It can get very warm underneath the coverings even if it is still cold outdoors.
Want to Try Rooting a Cutting?
I have used this product, and it works great for me in rooting azaleas, plumbago, hydrangea, as well as bougainvillea.
These Bracts and Vines Are Fast-Growing
I have loved bougainvillea since I first saw one on a trip to San Francisco. Now that we have relocated to Florida, I can finally grow my own. I purchased the one in the photo above about a month after we moved into our new home. Below is a photo of how it looked the day it was planted in 2012. It reached the roof of the house and almost covered the entire wall behind it. It also grew behind the downspout, and as the tender little tendrils became thick, hardened vines, it began to loosen the downspout. That little trellis had to be replaced with three larger and stronger ones in the summer of 2014. Unfortunately, getting it onto those trellises required some pruning. It was no longer laying on our roof and was trained to grow away from the downspout.
How to Prune Your Bougainvillea
Be forewarned, this gorgeous flowering vine can become quite invasive. I decided to prune mine in the way that a vineyard manager prunes grape vines, but not as severely. After all, it is only the new growth that produces flowers. Take care when pruning a bougainvillea, as it has large, sharp thorns.
Mine is on a wall near my front door, so I can't allow it to drift out over the front walk.
- I remove the lowest branches that wander across the ground by clipping them at their joint with the main trunk.
- Whenever possible, I wind higher branches into the trellis, or behind other branches that are securely trellised.
- Any that grow out toward the walk that leads to our front door, I clip at the point where the branch leaves the main trunk, taking care not to scar the trunk.
Do not let anyone tell you that you can simply snip off the ends of the branches to encourage new growth. You will get new growth, but you will be snipping off the flower buds. Bougainvillea blooms only on the tips of new growth. As branches get older, little side shoots will emerge, and they will bloom on their tips, too. This is how larger plants appear to be covered in a solid mass of flowers.
My Favorite Loppers
The sap can cause severe skin rashes. I often use wire cutters to clip off the thorns on the sections to be removed. I have had these Fiskars Bypass loppers for several years. They work for me when needing to avoid the thorns on bougainvillea, and also when a branch that needs removing is too high for me to reach.
The sap of bougainvillea is mildly toxic. If ingested in large enough amounts, it can lead to illness. While the leaves are not toxic, a prick from the thorns can lead to dermatitis, a skin rash that is typically caused by an allergic reaction.
-- Maria Montgomery
These Vines Grow Quickly, and Must be Managed
Best Bougainvilleas for Pots and Containers
Growing a bougainvillea in a pot isn't that different from growing on in the ground, though if you live where frost is an issue you will have to move any outdoor potted plant indoors during the winter. Some varieties are better than others for pots:
- “Miss Alice” (white bracts)
- “Bambino Baby Sophia” (orange bracts)
- "Rosenka" and "Singapore Pink" (pink bracts)
- “La Jolla” and “Crimson Jewel” (red bracts)
- “Oo-La-La” and “Raspberry Ice” (magenta bracts)
- “Vera Deep Purple” (purple bracts)
Some Pretty Photos. Others, Not So Much.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Questions & Answers
We just arrived back in the Phoenix area and our Bougainvillea is sad, wilted and no color. What should we do now?
If I count correctly, you wrote to me in October. That's when they should be blooming like crazy, at least around here, it is. I recommend checking for too much or too little water -- they need good drainage. You could check for pests -- mealy bugs almost killed mine. I'm not familiar with the soils, seasons in Phoenix. It would be a good idea to check with a local master gardener at your local county extension office.Helpful 28
Do Bougainvilleas do well in pots?
They may be fine in large pots, but pots will require two things of you:
1. More frequent watering, as the small amount of soil, will dry out more quickly, especially in hot weather.
2. In a pot, the root ball is surrounded with cold air in winter which makes it more susceptible to freeze damage.Helpful 12
What causes bourgainvillea bracts to dry?
All flowers and bracts have a short life-span. When spent, they naturally dry out, turn brown, and are dropped.Helpful 4
When pruning Bougainvillea do I cut off the sharp thorns?
It's not necessary, but I often did when I had a bougainvillea. It made handling the branches I had removed much easier.Helpful 18
My bougainvillea has faded and looks sick. What can I do to liven it up?
Bougainvillea blooms twice per year: spring and fall or early winter. The colorful bracts will fade when spent, then will brown and drop to the ground.Helpful 17
© 2014 MariaMontgomery