Vibrant beauties add a tropical touch to gardens and containers.
By Bernice Maddux, Weatherford, Texas
No other plants have given my husband and me more pleasure than our bougainvilleas. In the summertime when everything in our yard is dying from extreme heat, our bougainvilleas continue to bask in the sun's rays.
Our love for these plants started years ago when our daughter brought us a small pink bougainvillea in a pot. The plant was from Florida, and I feared it wouldn't survive in our Texas climate. Happily, that original plant not only survived, but it has also produced 16 "children" and "grandchildren."
Although we grow our bougainvilleas in containers, gardeners in Zones 9 to 11 have many more options. They can plant the explosively hued flowering vines to scale arbors, frame windows or doorways, shinny up trellises or spill over fences.
In these warmer regions, many people trim bougainvilleas as espaliers or erosion-controlling ground covers. You can also leave the plants untrimmed to grow into mounded shrubs. Potted bougainvillea makes for colorful cascading hanging baskets, but you can also train it into an upright, treelike standard form (see photo at top right).
In colder zones, gardeners must bring their containers inside for the winter. Placed in a brightly sunlit area, where temperatures are warm day and night, the plants may continue to grow and bloom. Without enough light and warmth, the plants could go dormant. If this happens, they will require very little water—just enough to keep the soil barely damp.
Come next spring, after the danger of
frost has passed, you can take your potted plants outside. There, they work to reenergize exterior landscapes with their exotic colors and contours.
As natives of South America, bougainvillea was named after Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a Frenchman who found the plant in 1768 while traveling through Brazil.
The quick-growing, thorny and woody vines bear riotous bunches of blossoms made up of insignificant yellow or cream tubular flowers. The real color comes from the surrounding papery bracts (a type of leaf) in red, pink, yellow, apricot, white or orange.
Left untrimmed, the vines grow up to 40 feet in height. However, horticulturists have developed a number of dwarf or more compact varieties ideally suited to growing in containers.
Bougainvillea asks so little and gives so much. After the drought-tolerant bougainvillea becomes established, all it requires is a little water and some regular fertilization. Garden-grown vines will also need a sunny site with well-drained soil.
Since bougainvilleas flower on new growth, experts recommend removing spent flowers and cutting back the flowering shoots by a half to ensure more flowers. Pinching back growth also results in more blooms and a tidier plant.
Pruning and Propagating
Autumn is always a sad time for me because I have to prune back my still-blooming bougainvilleas. But the upside of pruning is that we will have plenty of cuttings to use to create new plants.
We trim back our bougainvilleas to between 6 and 10 inches each fall and use the pruned stem pieces to start new plants. An expert told me that severe pruning is needed to keep the plants healthy and productive—it hurts me to the put shears to their branches, but a gal's gotta do what a gal's gotta do!
When propagating the cuttings, we dip the bottom inch of each 4- to 6-inch cutting into water and a rooting compound before planting it in a small pot filled with a 1-to-1 mix of soil and peat. We add a handful of perlite and vermiculite to lighten the potting mixture. Once the cutting takes root, we move it to a larger pot.
Then we place the cutting and shorn bougainvilleas in our greenhouse to wait out the winter months. The cuttings put out new growth in just a few weeks and bloom profusely before it's time to take them outside in early spring.
When days are dreary and my spirits are sagging, I go to the greenhouse to watch the bougainvilleas blossom. It always brightens my day.
In April, we carry out the old and newly propagated bougainvilleas to perk up our landscape. Then, from spring until impending frost, they flaunt their extravagant beauty for all to see.
Want to know how to train bougainvilleas into shapes? This subscriber-only feature is available through our Plus section.