Bougainvillea Care – A Comprehensive Guide

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Bougainvillea plants are a favorite that you’ll find in gardens all over the world. It’s easy to see the appeal – these plants are hardy, colorful, and respond well enough to shaping that you can even Bonsai them if you like!

Today, we’re going to tell you how to care for Bougainvilleas, giving you some useful tips about where they come from, what they need, and some more practical information such as step-by-step germination, maintaining, and even how to clone an established Bougainvillea from your garden.

With proper care, these plants can live 50 years or longer, so if you’re looking for colorful blooms that you can enjoy for many decades to come (with very little effort in the way of maintenance), then read on and we’ll tell you what you need to know to get started!

L:et’s talk about what you need to know about Bougainvillea care and getting the most ‘blooms for your buck’!

What Is A Bougainvillea?

Bougainvillea growing in Sant Angelo on Ischia Island in Italy
Bougainvillea growing in Sant Angelo on Ischia Island in Italy
  • Scientific name: Bougainvillea spectabilis
  • Alternate Names: Greater Bougainvillea, Bougenville, Pokok bunga kertas, Napoleón, Trinitaria
  • Family: Nyctaginaceae
  • Size:  May grow to be 15 to 40 feet (4.6 to 12.2 m) tall with trellising support and just as wide!
  • Blooms:  Small, tubular flowers of mauve, white, red, purple-red, or orange, that are surrounded by petaloid bracts.
  • Light:  Full sun (at least 6 hours a day) but can survive in partial shade
  • Watering:  Deep watering every 3 to 4 weeks is ideal – Bougainvillea likes dry soil.
  • Where to buy:  Online or at your local nursery

Bougainvilleas come to us originally from South America, where 18 species of these Nyctaginaceae vine and shrub plants have been identified. They were originally discovered by a French botanist named Philibert Commerson way back in the 1760’s, when he was exploring the flora and fauna of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The name ‘Bougainvillea’ comes from the name of a sailor who was a friend of Commerson, one Louis de Boungainville, and these days you can see these lovely plants just about everywhere. While there are 18 different species, the spectabilis variety of Bougainvillea gets a little bigger than the average – as most varieties will range between 20 and 30 feet in height and width, provided that they have a bit of support to grow upward.

When used as ground cover, however, they tend to stay more humble, typically growing 1 ½ to 2 feet tall and having a more modest spread of 8 to 10 feet!

They’re also quite the colorful choice for your garden and easy to maintain – these Brazilian beauties love their soil to be a bit on the dry side (which kicks them into bloom mode, actually) and blooms come in colors like purplish-red, mauve, white, red, and orange.

They’re guaranteed to brighten up your garden and their popularity around the world tells you just about everything you need to know – Bougainvilleas are definitely beloved!

Interesting Facts About Bougainvillea

With an old favorite like the Bougainvillea, you can bet that there are some interesting facts that have been collected over the years about these amazing South American beauties. Here are just a few that you might enjoy:

  • Grown in shade or even partial shade, your Bougainvilleas may still thrive, but you won’t be getting much if anything in the way of blooms.
  • While there are 18 species of Bougainvillea, most varieties that you’ll see in gardens are a product of interbreeding 3 Bougainvillea species.
  • While there are 18 species of Bougainvillea, there are over 300 varieties – so you’ve definitely got some choices to make when choosing your own!
  • The flowers of Bougainvillea are usually white, but those 3 blossoms are surrounded by 3 to 6 petals of red, orange, white, purplish red, mauve, yellow, or other colors depending on the variety of Bougainvillea you’ve chosen. 
  • The leaves accompanying those blooms will measure anywhere between 1.7 to 5.11 inches (approx. 4 – 13 cm) long and .78 to 2.36 inches (2 – 6 c) wide.
  • Gloves are ideal when tending your Bougainvillea, as the sap can cause a serious skin rash if you’re exposed to it 
  • Bougainvilleas LOVE the heat but the cold can kill them, so those who live in areas with more than very mild winters might do well to raise them in pots that may be taken inside as-needed.
  • Fast growing and quite beautiful, Bougainvilleas have been used to symbolize passion and resilience in classic literature and art. 

What Does Bougainvillea Look Like?

Close up of pink Bougainvillea flowers
Close up of pink Bougainvillea flowers

The Bougainvillea spectabilis grows as a shrub or a vine, depending on the kind of support that it has available. You’ll notice that it has heart-shaped leaves, along with some thorny stems that you won’t want to get scratches from, as they can give you a nasty rash!

Properly handled with gloves and safety in mind, however, you can tend one of these plants and it can grow to be anywhere from 15 to 40 feet tall, and just as wide. Depending on where you live, it should bloom sometime between November and May, at which point small, trumpet-shaped flowers of white will appear, surrounded by brightly-colored bracts of white, mauve, purplish-red, orange, or crimson red. 

The stems will be covered with thin and long thorns and you’ll often see them as far as the axil of the leaf, and there will be 3 to 6 of those colorful bracts that will be your telltale sign that you are indeed looking at Bougainvillea blooms!

Where Are They Found In Nature?

Bougainvillea spectabilis originally hails from South America, native to Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and the Chubut Province. That said, like many of our favorite plants, Bougainvillea have been introduced to many other countries, and so you’ll find them across Asia, Africa, the West Indies, tropical and subtropical states in America, the Mediterranean region, and sprinkling across a number of islands.

Bougainvilleas are also the national flower of Grenada, in the Caribbean, and the official flower of Guam.

Needless to say, it’s definitely increased its original range, so if you’re visiting places like China, Taiwan, the states or Florida, California, or Hawaii, or even exploring Japan, one thing that all of these countries have in common is beautiful Bougainvilleas growing naturally and thriving!

What Kind Of Habitat Does Bougainvillea Live In?

Bougainvillea on Naxos Island in Greece
Bougainvillea on Naxos Island in Greece

It varies, really, but the ideal habitat is equatorial, so that the days and nights are of equal length, and a tropical or at least subtropical environment is present to keep the plants warm and happy. Provided that this is the case, they’ll thrive in many habitats, and you might see them in forests vining up the trees for sunlight or you may see them mostly by-their-lonesome in dry patches that other plants might not like. 

A great example of a perfect environment for them is Singapore. While these plants are South American natives, in Singapore they are so well-suited for the environs that they tend to produce blooms the entire year-round!

Funny enough, it’s the equatorial location that really primes the flowers to bloom so well – Bougainvillea produce the most blooms when they can have 12 hours of darkness every night – so keep that in mind if you are raising them indoors. 

Finally, too much water can easily cause root rot in them, but drought conditions bring out their blooms in force. As they do well in so many places across the world, it’s probably best to just consider the ideal habitat to be warm and occasionally dry enough to promote blooms, and with long enough periods of darkness to maximize their production! 

Where Can I Buy These Plants?

Bougainvillea is quite easy to find, be it online or through your local nursery. If you have a friend or a good neighbor growing them, you might even be able to get a shoot that you can cultivate to grow Bougainvillea of your own. 

By way of example, on Amazon you can purchase this 100 pack of seeds that contains mixed-colored flower varieties of Bougainvillea, or you could purchase live plants such as this pair of pink ‘Barbara Karst’ Bougainvilleas that will definitely spice up your garden with some delightful color.

Caring For Your Bougainvillea

Starting off, it’s best that we cover some of the basics so that you’ll know what your Bougainvillea needs in order to grow up healthy and strong. We’ll cover the soil, watering, and sunlight requirements and then we’ll move on to raising your Bougainvillea from seedling to maintaining it and maximizing blooms, and then we’ll throw in a quick section on cloning your plants so that you can pretty-up your garden on your own!

Ideal soil

Bougainvilleas are drought resistant plants, but you should know that they also have very thin roots, and so a well-draining soil is going to be a must. Ideally, an equal mix of sandy and loamy soil is best, but you can also use regular potting soil with some perlite in it to ensure proper drainage.

Avoid adding peat or any other water-retaining elements to your soil medium – while Bougainvilleas can tolerate small periods where their soil is dry, soil that retains too much water is a quick recipe for root rot or fungal conditions that could harm or even kill your plant. You’ll also want a slight amount of acidity, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 being our target range for happy Bougainvilleas.

Watering schedule

When your Bougainvillea is still small, it hasn’t quite built up the drought tolerance that it enjoys when it’s older, so you need to be regular with your watering. Water it twice a week or simply when the top inch of soil feels dry.

Once your Bougainvillea is established, then you’ll be able to change up the watering schedule a bit. A lot will depend on where you live and the season – for instance, in hotter areas some choose to water every week, to help ensure that the soil doesn’t dry out and to help the plant fortify itself against the heat.

A 4-inch layer of compost can help you in this regard, even if the heat is not a worry, and some growers like to use this along with a deep watering every 3 to 4 weeks. The water should be room temperature – Bougainvillea has sensitive roots, and sudden cold could shock them – so be sure to keep this in mind when you are watering. When it’s hot out, then check the soil and if it’s dry, then you can switch to a once-a-week watering until it cools down, but be sure to check the soil each time – overwatering is a big danger with these plants, so you’ll need to be careful.

If you are dealing with a potted Bougainvillea, then a deep watering every 7 to 14 days will be ideal. With potted varieties, you’ll want to let the soil dry out between waterings, so experimentation will help you to find the ‘magic number’ for your own plants’ watering schedule in your specific location.

Sunlight

Bougainvilleas need at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. Anything less than this will result in only partial blooming or even no blooming at all, so this is very important. If you are raising them in pots, we should note that 12 hours of darkness is ideal when your plant is due to bloom and if you can move the pots during this time to give them that dark-time then you’ll be rewarded.

That said, we’d recommend just doing this with one pot to compare how it does against the others, at least until you get a good idea how many blooms you can expect each year without the extra steps.

Fertilizer

During the growing season, you’ll want to fertilize your Bougainvilleas once a month. You can use a balanced fertilizer, such as an NPK of 10-10-10, or you can use a specialty Bougainvillea fertilizer like this BGI Fertilizer’s Bougain Bag. This will help to give your Bougainvillea a little extra ‘oomf’ that should pay off dividends in fine blooms, provided that you do a bit of pruning in preparation (which we’ll cover in our section on ‘Maintaining your Bougainvillea shortly).

Raising a Bougainvillea from a seedling

In this section, we’re going to walk you through germinating a Bougainvillea from seeds so that you can give your seedlings a little edge before you transplant them into your garden. Here’s what you’re going to need:

  • Seedling trays (get from your local nursery, a good example are these 9Greenbox trays)
  • Heating pad (optional)
  • Soil mix (1 part sandy 1 part loamy, or potting soil with perlite)
  • Bougainvillea seeds
  • Spray bottle of water

Steps:

1. Add your soil mix to the seedling trays, after checking to make sure that you’ve got drainage holes on the bottom.

2. Make a hole in the center of your soil and add in 2-3 Bougainvillea seeds, covering them up and then giving them a watering with your spray bottle.

3. Place them somewhere warm where they can get sunlight, a south or western facing window is ideal. You can also use your heating pad – a temperature of about 75 degrees will make the conditions friendly for fast-sprouting seedlings.

4. Germination can take a month or more, so you’ll need to be patient, and you’ll want to water the soil lightly whenever the top inch is dry. 

5. Once your seedlings have made their appearance, tend them until they are about 5 to 6 inches tall, at which point you can either transplant them to a pot and nurture them for another month or 2, or you can simply put them in your garden. That extra month or two can make a difference, however, so if you’ve had problems with Bougainvilleas in the past, then consider taking that extra time for a stronger plant that will have a much easier time with the transplant.

6. When you do transplant your Bougainvillea, be very careful with the root ball – these plants have very thin roots, so take things slow and be very careful to avoid harming the root system.

Maintaining your Bougainvillea

Once your Bougainvilleas are established, they’re pretty fast growers, usually growing 3 feet in one year on-average. Tending them is a piece of cake, but there are a few things that you’ll want to keep in mind:

Cold is the enemy – While your Bougainvilleas can take a mild night or two of cold, if it gets under 30 degrees then your plants will be harmed. If you have serious winters in your location, then your Bougainvilleas need to be potted so that you can get them indoors when it gets too cold.

Regular rain means less watering – Once your Bougainvillea is established, it’s a tough little plant, and if you are getting regular rain then you won’t need to water it much or even at all during that time. Just check if the top 2 inches of soil are dry if you are worried, but otherwise don’t bother with extra water if you are getting a little rain each week – too much can lead to root rot and your Bougainvillea likes it a little dry anyway.

Pruning is a must – Pruning lets you shape your Bougainvillea (a lot of people like to Bonsai theirs) but also it’s important for blooms, as they are going to appear on new growths. If you’re a little forgetful about pruning, just be sure to do a little before the blooming season – you’ll be very happy that you did!

Watch for pests – While these are tough plants, they are susceptible to a handful of pests, such as aphids, snails, caterpillars, and spider mites. A bit of neem oil can help in a pinch if you are having problems.

 Fertilizer regularly – Fertilize at least once a month (and some prefer every 14 days) during the growing season, and use a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer or you can use Hibiscus fertilizer if you have some handy.

Consider trellising – Bougainvilleas will send out climbing vines and if you support them with some trellising or by binding them to a fence, you’ll love the aesthetics that result – especially when they bloom!

Cloning your Bougainvillea with layering to make more

So, now you know how to germinate your Bougainvilleas and how to maintain them, so the final quick tutorial is going to be on how to clone them and make more! A simple technique called ‘layering’ can help you to do this and if you follow the steps, then you can make a nice, little clone of one or more of your favorite established plants. 

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Pocketknife
  • Heavy stone

Steps to propagate your Bougainvillea with layering:

  1. This is something you’ll want to do in spring, when your Bougainvillea is at its mightiest, and what you’ll need to do is bend a growing stem down to the soil level. 
  2. Using your pocket knife, injure the stem about 6-10 inches from the end by cutting a 2-inch long strip off the bark on all sides. The easiest way is to cut a thin line and circle around on both sides so that you can carefully strip the bark. Keep it attached to the main plant – don’t remove it – and push it down to bury the injured part in the soil. Put your stone on top of it to help keep it down.
  3. Check the topsoil and water whenever it is dry, and within 3-4 months you can carefully dig and check to see if roots have developed. Once they have then congratulations – you can cut it from the parent plant and place your new Bougainvillea clone wherever you like in your garden!

FAQs

We’re just about to wrap things up, but before we do so, here are a few frequently asked questions that we hope will help cover anything that we might have missed along the way. Let’s take a look!

Why is my bougainvillea not blooming?

There are a number of reasons why this might occur. First off, blooms are going to be coming mostly from new growths, so regular pruning -especially before the growing season – is essential. Failure to bloom may also occur if the soil is too moist, if it’s not getting enough sun, or if you are not fertilizing your Bougainvilleas during the growing season.

Are eggshells good for Bougainvillea?

Yes! Eggshells and some other handy ingredients may be used to make an excellent compost to take care of your fertilizing needs without going commercial. You’ll need to tweak your own recipe, but grass clippings, eggshells, Epsom salt, and discarded veggie waster are all beneficial to your Bougainvillea plants when added to a compost.

How often do bougainvillea bloom?

In the tropics, these beauties will bloom off and on all year round, but in most locales you can expect blooms to appear sometime between November and May, and they will usually last for approximately 2 months.

How do you know if you overwater a bougainvillea?

Yellowing leaves are usually a telltale sign and you may see the plant drooping a little. Also, if you’re seeing less blooms this year but you’ve been pruning, then this might be another sign that you need to slow down on the watering. Try to stick to a schedule of one deep watering every 3 to 4 weeks for best results.

What is the lifespan of a bougainvillea plant?

On average, these plants will live for about 50 years, but there are Bonsai Bougainvilleas that are over 200 years old! They’re pretty tough cookies, once they’re established, so if you take good care of them you’ll be enjoying those blooms for a very, very long time!

Some closing comments on Bougainvillea Care

In today’s article we’ve talked about Bougainvillea care and shared tips and tricks, along with steps to grow a Bougainvillea from seed, how to maintain it, and even how to clone it when you’d like a little duplicate of your favorite plant.

While there is a little bit of a learning curve in the beginning, once your plant gets established you’ll be surprised at just how hardy these Brazilian natives can be. Just be sure to take care not to overwater it and make sure that you do some regular pruning and monthly fertilizing during the growing season.

With proper care, you’ll be enjoying those Bougainvilleas for many decades to come!

That’s all the time that we have for today, but before we go we’d like to invite you to leave feedback with some of your best tips and advice on raising these South America lovelies if you are so inclined. There’s really no substitute for hard-earned experience, after all, and you can bet we’ll be taking notes! Thanks for reading and we hope to see you again soon!

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