How to Care for and Grow a Beautiful Bougainvillea
Bougainvilleas Thrive in Temperate Climates
These beautiful vines are rapid growers and climbers, and prolific bloomers. They need a warm climate, full sun, and good drainage.
Bougainvilleas are native to Central America, most of South America, the Caribbean Islands, Spain, parts of the United States, and many other warm climates. They are 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
Planting a Bougainvillea in Your Garden
Taking a bougainvillea in your garden or home, 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. In spring and fall, these beauties (with the right care) will explode into blooms, spreading their thorny branches to cover a wall completely.
Where do bougainvilleas grow best?
Bougainvilleas are hardy perennials, but they prefer the temperate climates of USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9 through 11. (Not sure which zone you live in? See map below.) Bougainvilleas can also be grown as annuals or as houseplants outside of 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 do bougainvilleas grow?
Bougainvilleas are among the fastest growing plants. Typically they 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. But don't think you have to let the plant get that big! See tips for pruning your bougainvilleas 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.
Are bougainvilleas evergreen?
Yes. While they may briefly drop some leaves during cooler times of the year, they are classified as evergreen in mild climates and keep their leaves year-round.
Do bougainvilleas 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, here in central Florida, the heaviest bloom-time is early-to-mid spring and late autumn, both of which is when our weather is cooler. I saw them blooming profusely in San Francisco in July -- the daytime temperature was in the mid-60s.
- Bougainvilleas like a lot of water when they are first planted, but once they are established they do better when their soil is 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 break easily. Of course, 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.
- If necessary to prune when planting (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 spongy. 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 matter of 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 plant back hard in winter and bring indoors (if potted outdoors) in October. Apply a tablespoon of hibiscus fertilizer every 3 to 4 weeks in spring and summer.
Did You Know?
Bougainvillea "flowers" are actually leaves and are called "bracts." The plant's actual flower is the tiny white center of the bract.
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 and no flowers.
How to Keep Destructive Caterpillers Away
Above is what caterpillars did to my once-beautiful hot-pink bougainvillea. There is only one flower left on the entire plant, so I am not a happy gardener. The first photo is of one of the pests that did this. These guys come out only at night. 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 this Ziplock snack bag) to my local master gardeners for expert advice. 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 get it soon, as they have had several requests for this. 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.
How I Fertilize My Bougainvilleas
Some gardeners recommend using a tablespoon of hibiscus fertilizer every 3 to 4 weeks in the spring and summer. Bougainvilleas need rich, acidic soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.0. I sprinkle used coffee grounds around mine, as well as 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.
Summer Bougainvillea Care
In the summer heat, Neem oil—the organic pesticide that I normally recommend— will melt and drip 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. I may try that on my bougainvillea because it contains no chemical pesticides. Stay tuned. I'll let you know how it works.
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
Here in central Florida, a hard freeze is infrequent but does happen from time to time. We recently had a hard freeze that damaged a lot of plants, including some bougainvilleas that were freestanding. That is, not protected by being planted against a wall or the side of a building.
Mine is planted against 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 and some hibiscus bushes are planted 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; they must be covered.
The plant in this photo suffered severe damage but it will survive. Green leaves can be seen in the bottom half of the plant. The dead portions can be 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.
Here, a hard freeze is considered to be temps below 32 degrees Fahrenheit for four hours or more. A recent freeze lasted for approximately 11 hours. At 6:30 that morning, my outdoor thermometer showed a reading of 25 degrees.
All free-standing tropical plants should be covered if there is a danger of a hard freeze. Be sure, however, 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.
These Bracts and Vines Are Fast-Growing
I have loved bougainvilleas 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 has now reached the roof of the house and has almost covered the entire wall behind it. That little trellis had to be replaced with three larger and stronger ones in the summer, 2014. Unfortunately, getting it onto those trellises required some pruning. It is no longer laying on our roof, but probably will be by the end of the summer.
How to Prune Bougainvilleas
Be forewarned that this gorgeous flowering vine can become quite invasive. I have 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. 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 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. Fishers Bypass loppers
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.
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 blossoms)
- “Bambino Baby Sophia” (orange blooms)
- "Rosenka" (pink)
- "Singapore Pink" (pink)
- “La Jolla” and “Crimson Jewel” (red)
- “Oo-La-La” (magenta)
- “Raspberry Ice” (magenta)
- “Vera Deep Purple” (purple)
Some Pretty Photos. Others, Not So Much.Click thumbnail to view full-size
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