How to Plant, Grow and Care For Bougainvillea

Are you thinking about planting Bougainvillea but are not sure what this plant needs to thrive? In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss explains everything you need to know, to successfully cultivate this sturdy and remarkable plant.

bougainvillea

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Bougainvillea is a stunning flowering vine that finds its origins in South America. Native predominantly from Brazil to Peru and south to Argentina, this pretty tropical plant has found its way to many tropical and subtropical regions worldwide.

Beloved for its ease of care and spectacular floral displays, the plant is very popular in the United States and the Mediterranean region of Europe. Growing up in Southeast Florida, I can recall seeing this stunning plant climbing the exterior of many an outdoor shopping mall or ocean-side restaurant.

The plant was first recorded by a European botanist in 1789, and it claims its name from the French Navy admiral who captained the ship on which this botanist traveled. There is some question as to whether or not it was recorded by Philbert Comerrcon or his lover and assistant, Jeanne Baret. As women were not allowed on military ships, Ms. Baret, an expert botanist, disguised herself as a man to make the journey.

The largest bougainvillea plant in the United States is on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a California state historic site. Planted in 1901 by citrus growers, the bougainvillea is still growing strong today in Glendora, California.

Bougainvillea Overview

Close-up of a blooming Bougainvillea plant with vibrant purplish pink bracts, in a sunny garden. The plant has waxy, ovoid, dark green leaves. Bracts are modified, papery leaves that surround the true flowers. The flowers are tiny, tubular, white.
Plant Type Evergreen
Family Nyctaginaceae
Genus Bougainvillea
Species about 18
Native Area Eastern South America
Exposure Full sun
Water Low to Moderate
Soil Rich, Loamy, Well-Drained
Hardiness Zones 9-11
Bloom Colors Pink, Red, Purple, Orange, Yellow, White
Height up to 40’
Season Year Round
Attracts Moths, Bees, Butterflies
Pests Aphids, Leafminers, Bougainvillea Looper Caterpillar, Mealybugs, Scales, Thrips
Diseases Bacterial and Fungal Leaf Rot, Root Rot

Classification

Close-up of a flowering Bougainvillea plant with bright orange bracts, in a sunny garden against a blue sky. The plant produces long spreading vines covered with dark green waxy ovate leaves. The bracts are modified leaves that have a papery texture and surround small, tubular cream-colored flowers.
A tropical evergreen plant, this vine blooms in the late afternoon and evening.

Bougainvillea is a flowering, tropical evergreen plant in the Nyctaginaceae family. This family is more commonly known as 4 O’Clocks. This name is derived from the habit of flowering around this time of day. Plants in this family are late afternoon bloomers. Their flowers open in the evening and are pollinated at night.

The Bougainvillea genus is large and colorful. It includes about 18 species and more than 300 different varieties of flowering, woody vines. They are tropical plants that can survive in sub-tropical climates or are grown as annuals in colder climates.

Some smaller species can also be grown in containers and kept year-round as long as they are moved indoors during prolonged cold weather or a hard freeze.

Flowers

Close-up of the flowers of the Bougainvillea plant. The plant has bright pink bracts that surround small true flowers. Bracts are modified leaves with a papery texture. The flowers are small, creamy white, tubular.
The showy, colorful bracts, often mistaken as flowers, hide small white or pale yellow flowers.

Best known for what most people recognize as its bountiful and colorful blooms, the colorful portions of the bougainvillea plant are actually not flowers at all. The colorful portions of foliage are bracts which are closer in form to leaves than they are to flowers. Like poinsettia plants, these bracts are much more colorful and showy than their real flowers.

The actual flowers of the bougainvillea plant are very small and tucked away inside the bracts for protection. While the bracts come in many shades of pink, purple, orange, yellow, red, and white, the actual flowers are usually white or pale yellow. While a plant may produce an abundance of colorful bracts year-round, the most prolific seasons are late spring, summer, and fall. The cooler the climate, the sparser the bracts will be in the winter.

A greater blooming season is typically preceded by a dry winter. There are other methods of increasing the occurrence of these colorful bracts, like using a low-nitrogen fertilizer or pruning the plant heavily in the early spring.

Leaves

Close-up of the leaves of the Bougainvillea plant. The leaves are medium in size, ovoid, with narrowed tips and smooth edges. The leaves are dark green with a waxy texture.
This plant has large ovate leaves, usually smooth but sometimes with small hairs.

The leaves are large, simple, and ovate, are typically smooth, but can have small hairs on the underside of the leaves. They can be solid green to bluish-green or variegated. While bougainvillea is usually grown for its colorful bracts, a mixture of leaves and bracts creates a beautiful combination.

The ratio of bracts to leaves can be controlled by two factors: sunlight and fertilizer. More sun and less nitrogen will encourage the growth of more bracts, while less exposure and more nitrogen will encourage more green growth. However, insufficient sunlight can lead to leggy growth. This is not a good plant for a shade garden.

Propagation

Bougainvillea can be propagated by two means, with one taking a definite lead in acquiring a mature plant. Both are easy to procure, but propagation by cuttings is typically regarded as the most convenient and successful method.

Seeds

Top view, close-up of a small Bougainvillea plant in the garden, against the backdrop of a green lawn. The plant has ovate green leaves with a waxy texture and brown dry papery bracts that surround the seed pods.
Harvest from pods inside bracts, plant in well-draining soil, and keep in sunlight.

Bougainvillea seeds are not difficult to acquire but are known for troublesome germination. It typically takes up to 30 days for bougainvillea seeds to sprout, and they don’t have an excellent germination rate. However, if you intend to grow bougainvillea for bonsai, growing from seed will yield the best results.

Seeds can be harvested from a plant quite easily. The seed pods can be found inside the bracts where a flower has bloomed and fallen. These pods each contain 3 seeds. These seeds should be planted in a well-draining potting mix and kept in a warm sunny spot until they are large enough to be transplanted.

Cuttings

Close-up of young Bougainvillea seedlings in plastic cups full of potting soil mixed with sand. The cuttings have young small green ovoid leaves with a waxy texture. One of the cuttings has yellow blisters with a papery texture. Cups with cuttings are placed in a pink tray. There are many cut leaves on a wooden table.
The best way to propagate is through spring cuttings in well-draining soil, ideally while using a rooting hormone.

The most common and popular method of propagating bougainvillea is cuttings. Since these plants like to be pruned to produce new growth and plenty of colorful bracts, The ideal time to propagate is in the spring, after you have pruned your plant. This also gives you new cutting the most time to become established during an active growth period.

The thicker the cutting, the faster your cutting will root, achieving a bushier plant. However, any cutting the width of a pencil or greater will work. Scraping the bark from the bottom end of the cutting will encourage faster rooting. Scrape bark from the lower 2” of the cutting.

Prepare a 5” or larger pot with a coarse, well-draining potting medium. Coarse sand mixed with peat or soil and perlite is a good option for rooting these cuttings.  Dip the scraped end of the cutting water, shake off any excess, then roll it in a powdered rooting hormone. Carefully place it in a hole in the soil, pressing the soil firmly around the cuttings.

For several weeks, your cutting will need consistent moisture and bright, indirect light. If you do not have a space with fairly significant humidity, you can use plastic wrap or a plastic container over the pot to maintain moisture. If your cuttings are successful, they will produce leaves in a few weeks. Pruning the tips of new branches will encourage more branching.

Planting

Top view, close-up of a young, freshly planted Bougainvillea seedling in the garden. The seedling is small, consists of several short vertical stems densely covered with small, waxy, ovoid, bright green leaves.
Plant in spring or summer, 2′-3′ apart.

Bougainvillea can be planted in spring or summer. This gives your plant ample time to set roots and become established in its new location. Take care when planting these plants; their stems have rather large, stiff, and sharp thorns. Wearing a good quality pair of gloves helps protect your hands when planting or pruning this plant.

Plants should be placed 2’-3’ apart to avoid crowding. Mostly, these plants grow long but not terribly wide, although you can encourage branching with pruning. Dig a hole that is as deep and twice as wide as your plant’s root ball. Position your plant in the hole and backfill.

How to Grow

Under the right conditions, this is a fast-growing and tough plant. With the right care, your Bougainvillea will be a substantial plant by the end of the season. The most important factors are the soil type and the amount of sunlight your plant receives. These two things comprise the greater part of the factors important in growing a large, healthy bougainvillea plant.

Containers

Top view, close-up of two empty black containers, three containers of flowering Bougainvillea plants, and a bowl full of potting mix. Plastic containers, rounded, black, with drainage holes. Bougainvillea plants have lush green foliage that is green in color and ovoid with a waxy texture. Bracts are bright pink with a papery texture, surrounding tiny tubular white flowers.
For cold climates, use a large, portable container with excellent drainage.

If you live in a colder climate and are growing your bougainvillea in a container, choose a fairly large but portable one, as the plant will need shelter in freezing weather. The most important factor in choosing a container for this plant is drainage. A large fabric grow bag will encourage root strength and density and allow ample drainage.

Light

Close-up of a blooming Bougainvillea creeper in a garden under full sun. The plant produces dark green, waxy, elliptical leaves. Beautiful bright paper-textured coral bracts surround tiny creamy white flowers. The flowers are small, tubular.
It thrives in full sun, needing at least 6 hours daily for abundant colorful bracts.

Bougainvillea are sun-loving plants. While they can still live in partial shade, they tend to get leggy, and you end up with many branches, thorns, and very little foliage. This includes their colorful bracts. These plants require at least 6 hours of sun daily to produce their bracts in any significant amount.

There is almost no such thing as too much sun for these plants. They truly stand up wonderfully to heat and sun. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a sun-damaged or wilted bougainvillea.

You are far more likely to lose one of these plants to overwatering than to overexposure to the sun. The more sun your plant receives, the more color it will produce, and a lack of sunlight will result in more green growth.

Soil

Top view, close-up of a gardener's hands in blue gloves, pouring soil into a container with a flowering Bougainvillea plant, against the background of black soil in the garden. The plant is young, small, has medium, ovate, green, waxy leaves and bright pink bracts surrounding cream-flowered racemes.
Improve soil drainage to avoid root rot by adding sandy soil with compost or sand for better results.

Drainage is the key word where soil type is concerned for this plant. If your soil is very sandy, consider amending it with some well-rotted compost or manure to add nutrients.

Bougainvillea tends toward root rot if the roots are kept soggy, so soil that is too rich or dense should be amended with coarse sand or other large particles to break up the density and allow for proper drainage.

Water

Watering a young flowering Bougainvillea plant in the garden. Close-up of a female gardener dressed in a multicolored striped t-shirt and white trousers, watering a plant from a pink watering can. The moodoe plant is a small spreading shrub with long thin branches covered with dark green ovoid leaves with a waxy texture. The plant produces many bright white bracts that surround small true flowers. Bougainvillea grows in the background with bright pink bracts.
Water deeply every 2-3 weeks during prolonged droughts to prevent wilting.

For the most part, bougainvillea is well suited to hot, dry weather. Once established, these plants can go for weeks without watering and are unlikely to suffer from drought except in extreme cases.

If you experience a significant, extended period of drought, water your plant deeply every 2-3 weeks. Watering infrequently but deeply will be better for your bougainvillea roots than shallow waterings more frequently. This plant is happiest when its roots dry out between waterings.

A bougainvillea can suffer from a lack of water in extreme heat and low rainfall. Your plant will let you know this is the case by wilting. If it wilts, it needs a long drink of water.

Climate and Temperature

Close-up of a flowering branch of a Bougainvillea plant in a sunny garden, against a blurred green background. Bougainvillea is a tropical and subtropical woody vine or shrub that produces medium ovate green waxy leaves and bright purple bracts surrounding true flowers. The bracts are modified leaves with a papery texture. The flowers are small, cream-colored, arranged in groups of three in inflorescences in the centers of the bracts.
Protect the plant from freezing below 50°F in containers, 40°F in the ground.

Bougainvillea does not tolerate freezing weather. If you are growing in a container in a cooler climate, it is best to give the pot winter protection when the temperature drops below 50°F. In the ground, bougainvillea will suffer damage to leaves and bracts when the temperature drops below 40°F and may die back in a freeze.

Periods of prolonged freezing weather are likely to damage the roots as well. Some varieties, such as San Diego Red, are considered to be more cold-tolerant than others.

In terms of heat, bougainvillea is very tolerant. However, if you live in a climate that frequently experiences temperatures of over 100°F, offer your plant some shade in the afternoon.

Fertilizer

Close-up of a gardener spraying a Bougainvillea plant with fertilizer using a Pump Action Pressure Sprayer, in a sunny garden. The gardener is dressed in a multi-colored striped t-shirt and white trousers. Bougainvillea is a lush, bushy plant that produces many medium ovate, dark green leaves with a waxy texture. The plant also produces bright pink papery bracts that surround small white flowers.
Fertilize every 6-8 weeks from spring to late summer.

Bougainvillea plants like to be fertilized during their growing period. From early spring until late summer, you can fertilize every 6-8 weeks, and your plant will soak it up and reward you handsomely.

Something to remember is that different nutrients encourage different types of growth. Excess nitrogen can cause more green growth and less development of colorful bracts. That is not to say that the plant won’t utilize the nitrogen you give it, nitrogen will cause faster growth, but it just won’t help the plant focus on producing bracts, which most gardeners prefer.

While your plant is getting established, feed it a balanced fertilizer for ample growth and root development. A 10-10-10 formula will do the trick. Once the plant is established, switch to a fertilizer higher in potassium. This is represented by the third number in the fertilizer formula or the “K” of NPK. The additional potassium will encourage the development of bracts and flowers.

Maintenance and Care

Close-up of a gardener pruning Bougainvillea branches with yellow pruners, in a sunny garden. The gardener is wearing a multicolored striped T-shirt, white trousers and orange and white gloves. The Bougainvillea plant is young, consists of thin branches covered with medium ovate leaves of dark green color with a waxy texture. The plant produces beautiful bright white bracts that surround tiny white flowers.
An established plant is low-maintenance, except for occasional pruning to encourage full growth.

Bougainvillea is a no-fuss plant, particularly once it is established. It will use fertilizer if you provide it. Otherwise, it is extremely heat and drought-tolerant and doesn’t need much regular care.

The exception to this is pruning. Pruning will encourage branching and fuller, bushier growth. Pruning small amounts while the plant is young will help the plant to develop more branches, and significant pruning in the early spring will keep your plant’s foliage dense and lush.

Varieties

Several unique cultivars offer an array of colors and growth habits.

‘Formosa’

Close-up of a flowering plant Bougainvillea glabra 'Formosa' in a sunny garden. Bougainvillea glabra 'Formosa' is a tropical and subtropical evergreen woody vine or shrub. The plant has simple elliptical leaves with a leathery texture. They are dark green in color, arranged alternately along the stems, and have prominent veins running through them. Violet-pink bracts are modified leaves that surround and support small, inconspicuous flowers. The flowers are white, small, clustered together in clusters called racemes.
This cold-tolerant, midsized bougainvillea has abundant, colorful blooms ideal for bonsai or small trees.
botanical-name botanical name Bougainvillea glabra ‘Formosa’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 20’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 9-11

‘Formosa’ is a midsized variety with pretty purple bracts. It is suitable for growing as a bonsai or small tree because of its size. This is a particularly cold-tolerant variety, as purple varieties tend to be, and a huge producer of colorful bracts and flowers. ‘Formosa’ has a long blooming season and is a very showy cultivar.

‘Hugh Evans’

Close-up of a flowering Bougainvillea 'Hugh Evans' plant in the garden. The plant produces many pale pink and coral bracts that surround small, inconspicuous flowers. The leaves are ovate, dark green with a waxy texture.
A striking cultivar with bicolored bracts, ‘Hugh Evans’ has lovely blue-green foliage and spreading growth.
botanical-name botanical name Bougainvillea ‘Hugh Evans’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 20’+
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 9-11

‘Hugh Evans’ is a stunning cultivar with bicolored bracts. The foliage is a lovely blue-green color which beautifully complements the bubblegum pink and coral-colored bracts. This medium to large variety tends to spread, so give it space to grow, and it will reward you with its stunning foliage in the spring and summer.

‘Miami Pink’

Close-up of a blooming liana plant Bougainvillea 'Miami Pink' against a blurred leafy background. The plant has ovate leaves of a shade green color with a waxy texture. The bracts are bright pink in color and have a papery texture. True bougainvillea flowers are relatively small, tubular and nondescript, white in color.
This cultivar lives up to its name with flashy, neon pink bracts, making it a popular, vigorous, and fun vine.
botanical-name botanical name Bougainvillea ‘Miami Pink’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 20’-30’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 10-11

Splashy, flashy, and fun, ‘Miami Pink’ lives up to its namesake. This vigorous grower produces the most fantastic, neon pink bracts en masse from spring through fall. The color of this variety is noteworthy and makes this a very popular cultivar.

‘New River’

Bougainvillea 'New River' is a vigorous, fast growing and spreading plant with striking bracts and bright flowers. The leaves are simple, ovate to lanceolate, and have a glossy texture. They are dark green in color and are arranged alternately along the stems. Bracts are modified leaves that surround and support small, inconspicuous flowers. These bracts are a bright purplish-purple color. The flowers are small, creamy white, grouped in clusters called racemes, and located in the center of each bract.
The ‘New River’ cultivar is a dramatic, large plant with profuse, bright purple bracts from spring to fall.
botanical-name botanical name Bougainvillea ‘New River’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 20’-40’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 9-11

If you are looking for drama, ‘New River’ is just the plant for you. This plant will have all the neighbors talking with its profusion of bright purple bracts from spring through fall. This is a large cultivar, reaching up to 40’ long, and makes a lovely espalier.

‘San Diego Red’

Close-up of a flowering Bougainvillea buttiana 'San Diego Red' plant with profuse red bracts surrounding inconspicuous white flowers. Bracts are large, leaf-shaped, papery in structure. The leaves are dark green, usually elliptical or ovoid. They are alternately arranged along the stems and have a glossy texture. True 'San Diego Red' bougainvillea flowers are small and white, almost hidden in bright red bracts.
A particularly cold-tolerant and shade-tolerant variety, ‘San Diego Red’ shines its brightest and boldest red.
botanical-name botanical name Bougainvillea buttiana ‘San Diego Red’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 15’-30’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 9-11

As mentioned earlier, ‘San Diego Red’ is a particularly cold-tolerant variety. It also is tolerant to a greater amount of shade than some varieties. Still, maximum sun produces maximum color, and this color will knock your socks off. ‘San Diego Red’ is the brightest, boldest red. It is also commonly called ‘Scarlett O’Hara.’ 

‘Java White’

Close-up of a blooming Bougainvillea 'Java White' bush in a garden. The plant has shiny green leaves, which are sometimes dazzled with white, which adds to its visual appeal. The leaves are oval in shape and alternate along the stems, creating a lush backdrop for the colorful bracts and flowers. The bracts are pure white, surrounding small inconspicuous white flowers in the center. The bracts are densely clustered and dense, creating a showy appearance. The flowers of 'Java White' are relatively small, greenish-cream in color and funnel-shaped.
An elegant cultivar, ‘Java White’ features tightly clustered, dense white bracts ideal for formal gardens.
botanical-name botanical name Bougainvillea ‘Java White’
sun-requirements sun requirements Full sun
height height 20’+
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 9-11

‘Java White’ is an elegant cultivar with white bracts and variegated leaves. The bracts on this variety tend to be tightly clustered and dense. This variety’s soft and subtle color combination makes it a lovely addition to a formal garden.

Pests and Diseases

A few annoying bugs and pathogens sometimes attack this plant.

Aphids

Close-up of Bougainvillea flowers infested with aphids. Aphids are small insects with soft, pear-shaped green bodies that suck the juice from plants. Bougainvillea has bright pink papery bracts and small elongated pink buds with unopened flowers.
Bougainvillea faces green aphid issues, harming new growth, but there are effective solutions for treatment.

Most plants are vulnerable to at least one type of aphid. For bougainvillea, green aphids can be a real bummer.

They prefer to feed on new foliage, causing the bracts and leaves to shrivel and stunting growth by depleting nutrients. Horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps effectively deal with these pesky sap suckers.

Leafminer

Close-up of a leaf infested with a Leafminer larva. The leaf is smooth, dark green. It has characteristic white serpentine patterns, these are mines or tunnels that the larva makes.
The larvae target tender new growth, causing curling trails through the leaves and stunted growth.

Leafminers larvae like to feast on tender new bougainvillea growth. Mature foliage is rarely affected except during a very bad infestation.

These pests cause curling trails through the leaves and can deplete the new growth, stunting the plant. Pheromone traps are the most effective combatant against leafminers.

Bougainvillea Looper Caterpillar

Close-up of Bougainvillea Looper on a green leaf. Looper caterpillar has a small, greenish yellow, smooth, elongated body. It moves in a looping motion similar to an inchworm. The leaf has an uneven hole made by the caterpillar.
This caterpillar feeds on tender leaves, causing minor damage.

The Bougainvillea Looper caterpillar is specific to this plant, as it serves as the larval food for this particular insect. The larvae are small, yellow, smooth, and about 1” long. They look and move similar to an inchworm. Individuals will feed on tender new leaves, while older larvae will move on to older leaves.

A few of these insects are unlikely to damage a mature plant severely, but you may notice leaves in a certain area have been chewed around the edges. A severe infestation can result in massive defoliation, which can stunt the plant’s growth.

Mealybugs, Scales, Thrips

Close-up of a Mealybug on a green leaf. It is a small, soft-bodied insect with a white cottony appearance. It has an oval, segmented body and thin, cottony, thread-like legs around the body.
Mealybugs, scales, and thrips are sap-sucking pests that cause foliage issues.

These three are common garden pests that all feed on the sap of plants and leave behind a sticky excrement called honeydew. A severe infestation of any of these can cause curling and shriveling of foliage, lack of blooms, and a general depletion of nutrients.

YouTube video
Neem oil can be a great solution to control pests and diseases.

The honeydew they leave behind is a perfect environment for sooty mold to grow, which can interfere with photosynthesis. Neem oil is an effective treatment for all three insects, as are horticultural oils.

Bacterial and Fungal Leaf Rot

Close-up of a diseased Bougainvillea plant in a garden, against a blurry background. The plant has an upright trunk with wilted dry bracts. The leaves are green, broad, oval, waxy, covered with small brown dots due to Fungal Leaf Rot.
Leaf rot occurs mostly during periods of excessive humidity or rain.

Leaf rot is usually the result of too much humidity or rain and insufficient air circulation. There are a handful of pathogens that can cause leaf rot, and most of them are waterborne. Keeping dead or damaged foliage pruned away and watering at the base of the plant rather than watering the foliage are ways to prevent these issues.

Fungal leaf rot can be treated with fungicides, but bacteria are usually untreatable. The best course of action is to remove all affected parts of the plant and take preventative measures in the future.

Root Rot

Close-up of the roots of a Bougainvillea plant on a white table next to a small dark green garden trowel. The plant has a medium-thick trunk and branched rusty-brown roots. Soil is scattered on the white table.
Container plants are prone to root rot due to fungal growth during overwatering, so ensure good drainage.

Root rot is more of an issue in container plants than it is in those planted in the ground. As long as your soil drains well and you don’t constantly overwater this plant, you should be able to avoid any major root issues.

However, if you are keeping your bougainvillea in a container and it doesn’t have good drainage, it will be very easy to overwater this plant and wind up with a case of fungal root rot. To treat root rot, you must dig up the root ball, trim off badly-rotten roots, and then re-pot it in new soil. Applying fungicide to the remaining roots before replanting may be beneficial as long as it’s not likely to cause damage to the sensitive tissues.

Final Thoughts

If you are looking for a low-maintenance, tropical plant that makes a major statement in the garden, bougainvillea fits the bill. This stunning and sturdy flowering evergreen is a vigorous grower and brings color and pizzazz to the landscape throughout the year.

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