4 Popular Bougainvillea Varieties + Expert Tips On How To Care For Them
If you're looking for an easy way to add color to your yard, look no further than the bougainvillea, a tough-as-nails flowering plant that comes in many sizes and hues. Here's everything you need to know about caring for this tropical stunner.
- Sunlight needs: Bright, direct light (at least 6 hours per day)
- When to water: Every 3 to 4 weeks; more if it's in a container
- Pros: Quick to grow, comes in lots of pretty varieties
- Cons: Has sharp thorns
- Where to put them: Outdoors in a bright, sunny spot
- Pet-friendly? Can be harmful because of the thorns
- Size: Vines can reach 40 feet long
Bougainvillea plants are native to South America and typically thrive outdoors in full direct sunlight.
This bountiful beauty can be drought tolerant once established into the ground, and it attracts beneficial pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds. Conversely, it is deer resistant. You can find the bougainvillea in most retail nurseries.
While the bougainvillea is gorgeous to look at, you'll want to be careful when you interact with the plant. It's known for its nail-like thorns!
Variations of bougainvillea.
Bougainvilleas can act as both a bush or a vine, depending on the variety. Bushier bougainvilleas tend to grow semi-tall and wide, whereas vines can get up to 40 feet long.
Here are a few popular bougainvillea varieties and the highlights of each:
- Barbara Karst (most popular): A hybrid, the Barbara Karst bougainvillea has showy, brightly colored leaf structures (bracts) that range from red to magenta and surround tiny white flowers. This bougainvillea blooms throughout the year and can climb up to 40 feet with support. It does best in dry locations.
- San Diego Red: This bougainvillea is one of the most cold-tolerant, and considered to be very hardy. The bracts on the San Diego Red bougainvillea are lipstick-red, showing off their color best in full sun. This bougainvillea, while still drought-tolerant, can handle more water than the Barbara Karst.
- California Gold: This bougainvillea is a flowering machine, known for its golden-yellow bracts that surround tiny cream-like flowers. The California Gold isn't a clingy climber and would benefit from tying for extra support. This bougainvillea prefers moist, well-drained soil and can also be grown as a houseplant.
- Imperial White: The Imperial White bougainvillea (also known as the Imperial Thai Delight) has pale pink bracts that initially emerge as white. This bougainvillea prefers moist, well-drained soil and can also be grown as a houseplant.
Planting & growing bougainvillea.
Bougainvilleas love being planted outdoors in full direct sunlight in USDA plant hardiness zones 9–11. Greg Kuga, the manager of Sunset Blvd Nursery in Los Angeles, recommends planting them in a bright spot in your garden after the last chill of the winter has passed.
Bougainvillea can be grown either directly in the ground or in a pot, but since the plant tends to grow tall, you'll need a large container if you want it to reach its full potential.
Many people opt to place vining varieties up against a trellis or wall so they can climb. Bushier varieties tend to make a great hedge when they get large enough.
While most bougainvillea varieties need lots of hot, direct sun and air circulation to thrive, there are some that can be kept as houseplants. If you are growing yours indoors, be sure to place it in a bright spot in well-draining soil.
Caring for the plant.
As Kuga previously mentioned, bougainvilleas like to be out in the sun—direct sunlight is best for them. When placed in a shady spot, the plant will stretch out, and its limbs will look quite bare. It's not the most aesthetically pleasing look!
When temperatures drop, the plant tends to lose its leaves and flowers, and it could die if temperatures dip below freezing. Those who live in colder areas might want to look into varieties that can thrive as houseplants instead.
Since bougainvilleas are drought-resistant, they don't need too much water. However, the time of year will affect your plant's watering schedule. During hot seasons, it will need to stay a little bit more moist.
If your bougainvillea is in a pot, watering once or twice a week is usually a good bet. If it's in the ground, you'll want to consistently check its soil to see if it actually needs water. To avoid overwatering and root rot, make sure it feels totally dry before you give it a good soak.
In both containers and in the ground, bougainvilleas need well-draining soils. "If the water tends to puddle or stay above the ground before soaking in, the soil could possibly stay too wet and rot the roots of the plant," Kuga explains.
Can you propagate bougainvillea?
While the bougainvillea has seeds, it can take a long time for those seeds to grow. Instead, you can also try propagating your plant cuttings using Kuga's step-by-step method:
- First, cut off a node about 6 to 8 inches long (learn how to identify those here), and plant into well-draining soil.
- It will take time for the plant to take hold in the soil, but you can add a rooting stimulant and fertilizer to help speed up the process.
- Though propagation success rates are medium to low, if any of your cuttings successfully root, they will grow pretty quickly from there.
- Once you have a successful cutting, begin to watch your bougainvillea grow and transfer it to a larger pot once it's outgrown its first one.
Tips to keep in mind.
Here, Kuga highlights the most important tips for keeping your bougainvillea healthy and looking great:
- When replanting a bougainvillea that was purchased from a nursery, don't remove any of the soil around the root base. If you disturb the root system, the plant might go into shock and die. Instead, cut the plastic container off and grab the soil to plant in another container or in the ground.
- Don't overwater! Overwatering is a leading cause of plant death. Always make sure the plant's soil dries out in between waterings.
- Though they can technically be planted at any time of year, you'll want to plant your bougainvillea at the end of the cold period. On the West Coast, where Kuga is located, that's mid to late March.
- Bougainvilleas tend to have some thorny areas. If you plant yours near a walkway, be wary of the thorns. Watch out for spikes when pruning, too!
- Bougainvillea can attract a multitude of bugs. Its most common pest is the mealybug, a white cotton-looking bug that tends to hide in the crevices of its leaves and branches. You can combat the mealybug by applying an organic product like neem oil.
The bottom line.
With its stunning colors and quick growth, flowering bougainvilleas would make for a wonderful gift for a plant lover or add a calming component to any healing garden. If you live in a hot, sunny place and are yearning for a new low-maintenance friend, a variation of the bougainvillea might be your next not-so-typical pick...just watch out for those thorns!
Carly Quellman is a creative storyteller and movement enthusiast. She received her bachelor's degree in journalism from Sacramento State University after studying architectural design at University of Technology, Sydney. Carly has worked with many top publications and brands including Quoted Magazine, NBC, and Yelp.
When Carly's not covering sustainability topics, she spends her time tackling social impact issues regarding the environment & its inhabitants, practicing self-reflection (on and off the mat), and reading memoirs from Black authors. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.