April 5, 2011

Brilliant Bougainvilleas

I like Bougainvilleas a lot.....preferably on someone else's property. The plants are the epitome of colorful and tropical plants. But, ( and there is always a BUT), the plants need some specialized care, and like roses, come with some intimidating thorns. In all candor, Bougainvilleas are really quite easy to grow, and most people over-cultivate them, resulting in huge plants with few blooms. Without a doubt, the most frequent question I get is "why won't my Bougainvillea bloom ? I have had it for years...."). The question is easy to answer and easy to correct. I'll address that question a bit later.

how a Bougainvillea should be displayed !


'Raspberry Ice'

'Don Hatten'

growing in a desert or xeric garden, plenty of reflected light

This group of plants is one of the easiest of all to grow, yet one of the most misunderstood. In the subtropical parts of the country, these plants grow with abandon, and should be treated with both respect and careful neglect. In short, Bougainvilleas need rather little input from you to bloom well. Plant any member of this group in as much sunlight as possible; all day sunlight and a well-drained location are required for maximum success. The plants need occasional hard pruning while in active growth to maintain their shape, otherwise the vining types may grow to stupendous dimensions ( over 50 feet in a year).  Fertilize the plants with palm fertilizer or gardenia fertilizer, my own preference is 12-4-15 palm fertilizer, every 4 months, with a Spring additional fertilizing of Nutricote 13-13-13. Our South Florida climate has a rainy season from May to October, and not very much  rain at all from November to April: perfect for the wet-Summer / dry-winter regime Bougainvilleas need. Turn off the sprinklers completely once the plants are established.

The answer to the problem of lots of green growth and no blooms is too much water. I often see someone plant a Bougainvillea in the middle of a lush green lawn, then wonder why the Bougainvillea does not flower ! Bougainvilleas  are mostly desert growers, and need very little additional watering once established. Water these plants only when they are wilted. A moderate diet, quarterly pruning when in active growth, no water or fertilizer after late September = abundant blooms in the short day of the year.( We don't talk about "winter" very often in Miami; it's more of a concept than a reality.)

There are myriad varieties to suit every size range, from the naturally tree-forming B. arborea, a street tree of Brazil; to the diminutive dwarf forms like 'Maria', and 'Don Hatten'. Many Bougainvilleas are sold as sheared standard-tree forms, but this is a disservice to a plant that really prefers to spill over a rock wall or growing robustly on a heavy arbor or pergola. This is a great plant group for a large design space or where the blaze of color is needed. They can be grown successfully as patio plants, and are custom-fit for xeric gardens. With the specter of near-permanent watering restrictions looming on the horizon, you can still have a garden with a lot of color while saving water and resources. Just watch out for the spines, wear gloves, use tough love tactics on the plants, then watch the flower show. Don't fear the plants, just understand them better !   

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

B. arborea at the American Orchid Society Garden, Delray Beach, FL
A thornless, summer-blooming species, and fragrant, too !


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