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How to Care for Your Bougainvillea

Updated on June 9, 2017

Bougainvillea in Full Bloom

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Winter Care

The bougainvillea are 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 delicate and very flexible. They can become broken in high winds. You may even want to consider pruning it back a bit -- after it finishes blooming, of course.

These Beauties Thrive in Mild, Temperate Climates, and Love the Tropics

These beautiful vines are rapid growers and climbers, and prolific bloomers. They need a warm climate, full sun, and good drainage. They also need rich, acidic soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.0. I sprinkle used coffee grounds around my bougainvillea, as well as 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.

Bougainvillea is native to Central America, most of South America, the Caribbean Islands, Spain, parts of the United States, and many other warm climates. Bougainvillea is available in many colors including hot pink (my favorite) red, purple, lavender, yellow, orange, pale pink, white, and white with pink-tipped edges.

Now (May, 2015) that the spring peak of blooming here in central Florida has passed, the bougainvillea are still blooming, but with far fewer flowers. It's also time to be on the look out for pests that will eat the leaves, and leave you with an unsightly plant and no flowers. More information about the pests is shown below.

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Bougainvillea Flower

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It Was Love at First Sight

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 December, 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 3 larger and stronger ones in the summer, 2014. Unfortunately, getting it onto those 3 trellises required some pruning. It is no longer laying on our roof, but probably will be by the end of the summer. 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 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.

Cayenne Pepper

Dissolve cayenne pepper in warm water, then spray it on plants to discourage pests.
Dissolve cayenne pepper in warm water, then spray it on plants to discourage pests. | Source

In Summer Heat Insecticidal Oils will Melt and Drip Off

In the summer heat, Neem Oil, the organic pesticide that I normally recommend (and all garden oils) 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 the 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.


Freeze Damage on My Neighbor's Bougainvillea

This damage can be cut away, allowing new growth to emerge.
This damage can be cut away, allowing new growth to emerge. | Source

Protect Your Bougainvillea Against Occasional 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 plants in this photo suffered severe damage, but 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 4 hours or more. We experienced freezing temps 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.


Purple Bougainvillea

Here you can see how this plant gets into soffits and roof shingles if not managed properly.
Here you can see how this plant gets into soffits and roof shingles if not managed properly. | Source

My Bougainvillea When First Planted

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This Purple Bougainvillea is in a Yard Near My Home

When Pruning is Needed, Always Clip at a Joint

This one has plenty of space to grow. 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.

Some Pretty Photos - Others, Not So Much

Click thumbnail to view full-size
My bougainvillea this spring, before pruning to install the new trellis.Here's a closer look at this beauty.The day it was planted, December, 2012.Sixteen months after being planted, it outgrew the original trellis. It is now on 3 trellises. Unfortunately, getting it on these trellises required pruning.When handling this vine, watch out for the large thorns. The newer baby ones are soft and flexible, but will  still stick you.These are the caterpillars that ate stripped the leaves of this plant.This is how the leaves appear after a night with hungry caterpillars.More caterpillar damage.To help you recognize it:  caterpillar feces dropped onto my daylilies, front walk, and other plants.This guy was on my house. Found one on my bougainvillea, too. The leaves must not taste to them, because I removed that one, and have found no more.
My bougainvillea this spring, before pruning to install the new trellis.
My bougainvillea this spring, before pruning to install the new trellis. | Source
Here's a closer look at this beauty.
Here's a closer look at this beauty. | Source
The day it was planted, December, 2012.
The day it was planted, December, 2012. | Source
Sixteen months after being planted, it outgrew the original trellis. It is now on 3 trellises. Unfortunately, getting it on these trellises required pruning.
Sixteen months after being planted, it outgrew the original trellis. It is now on 3 trellises. Unfortunately, getting it on these trellises required pruning. | Source
When handling this vine, watch out for the large thorns. The newer baby ones are soft and flexible, but will  still stick you.
When handling this vine, watch out for the large thorns. The newer baby ones are soft and flexible, but will still stick you. | Source
These are the caterpillars that ate stripped the leaves of this plant.
These are the caterpillars that ate stripped the leaves of this plant. | Source
This is how the leaves appear after a night with hungry caterpillars.
This is how the leaves appear after a night with hungry caterpillars. | Source
More caterpillar damage.
More caterpillar damage. | Source
To help you recognize it:  caterpillar feces dropped onto my daylilies, front walk, and other plants.
To help you recognize it: caterpillar feces dropped onto my daylilies, front walk, and other plants.
This guy was on my house. Found one on my bougainvillea, too. The leaves must not taste to them, because I removed that one, and have found no more.
This guy was on my house. Found one on my bougainvillea, too. The leaves must not taste to them, because I removed that one, and have found no more. | Source

A Destructive Caterpillar

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Watch for Pests

Especially Caterpillars Like this One

This 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. This photo is of one of the pests who 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.

© 2014 MariaMontgomery

Do You Love Bougainvillea? Or Have a Question About this Plant?

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    • profile image

      burntchestnut 2 years ago

      I live in San Antonio and there are bougainvilleas everywhere and in many colors.

    • tracy-arizmendi profile image

      Tracy Arizmendi 2 years ago from Northern Virginia

      Great article! Very informative and well written. I hope you have gotten rid of those pesky caterpillars!

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 2 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @tracy-arizmendi: Thank you, Tracy1973. I think they are almost gone now, but the plant still has to recover. It has lots of stripped leaves. Thanks for the squidlike and for the nice comment.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 2 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      @burntchestnut: I need to add orange to my list of colors for this plant. Do you know whether it comes in any other colors I didn't mention? Thank you for the squidlike and comment. Both are appreciated. See you around Squidoo.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 2 years ago from California

      Well, I had been wondering how to trim my plant and you answered that question--I wonder if it matters when I clip it??

    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 2 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      We don't have these in our area, but I fell in love with them when I visited my sister in LA. So, so very beautiful. :)

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 2 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      The best times are in between bloom cycles. Mine is just now beginning to put out new growth. If it were to be pruned now, it would lose all the flower buds that will soon be coming. I suggest waiting until it has finished blooming. Of course, if is has grown too large, you could selectively remove some of the canes. I don't remember whether I covered this in the article, but if the thorns are a huge problem for you, take a pair of wire cutters, and clip off the thorns so you can safely handle the branches.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 2 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      Hi, Paula! I first saw them, and fell in love, too, in San Francisco. Then again in Key West. I'm so glad I can grow them now.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 2 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      I love them, too, BigMarble. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they would grow everywhere?

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      This is a tough one to grow in our neck of the woods. I've seen it done, but it sure takes a lot of care. We are just too cool and damp here....but I would love to grow one successfully.

    • BigMarble profile image

      Gregory Jones 2 years ago from IL

      I landscaped in Florida for about 10 years and love the large varieties of color of bougainvillea. I wish we could grow it up here in IL year 'round.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 2 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      You would probably need to grow it in a large pot, then move it indoors in temps below 40 degrees. Maybe even below 50 degrees if it is not in a protected area such as against a wall. It would be a lot of trouble, but well worth it if you love prolific flowers. Let me know if you try it.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 2 years ago from Germany

      I love bougainvillea. I have some of these flowers in my tropical garden which is in my home country Philippines. I wish I have that purple bougainvillea too. Thanks for sharing some informations about this beautiful plant.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 2 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      You're welcome. So glad you enjoyed my article. Thanks for visiting.

    • profile image

      Carla 2 months ago

      Will these grow year round in the south (Atlanta)?

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 2 months ago from Central Florida, USA

      In Atlanta you will need to grow Bougainvillea in a large pot that can be taken indoors during winter. When I lived in Charlotte NC, I visited Key West where I bought a bougainvillea from a woman who assured me it would survive the winter if it became established before winter arrived. That was definitely not true.

    • profile image

      Debby 6 weeks ago

      I have 2 bougainvillea that have never bloomed. I have tried what I think to be everything. Should I throw them out and start over again? They are in the ground and I fertilize with the right stuff, but still nothing. So bummed!

    • MariaMontgomery profile image
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      MariaMontgomery 6 weeks ago from Central Florida, USA

      I write a garden blog called "In the Garden with Maria". On it I answer my readers' gardening questions. Here's the link to one entitled, "Why Won't My Bougainvillea Bloom?" I hope you enjoy it, and that it helps. https://inthegardenwithmaria.com/2016/05/26/bougai... You can also reach the blog by clicking on the source name under the intro photo on this hub. Thanks for visiting, and good luck with your bougainvillea.

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