Plant Profiles Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea is a genus of brilliantly colored vines seen growing throughout the tropics. Originally native to South America, it has spread to warm climates worldwide because of its hardy and low-maintenance character.

The vine is named for Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the Frenchman who circumnavigated the globe in the 1760s. On board the vessel was his friend and naturalist Philibert Commerçon, who identified and classified the plant in Brazil in 1768.

Bougainvillea is a tough woody vine with sharp hooked thorns. It grows over anything if left to itself. It will climb fences, walls, other plants, or whatever is in its way. It can grow several meters tall, but is just as likely to spread sideways over walls or other structures. It can be grown in containers, but must be cut back regularly to keep any kind of shape.

Bougainvillea is evergreen in warm climates, but will drop its leaves during cold seasons in other areas. It grows best in dry sandy soil, and is very popular because it requires little water. It is also very salt tolerant, and thus is frequently seen in coastal areas where the ocean breezes are full of salt. It grows best in full sun and performs better with regular fertilization.

The color of the bougainvillea is not actually the flowers. The flower is a tiny tubular white bloom at the tip of the stalk. The color comes from three bracts growing just below the flower on the stalk. The bracts are leaf-like papery growths that turn into a rainbow of colors from pale yellow to vivid magenta and everything in between. In warm climates, the bracts last for weeks and can be seen almost year round.

Bougainvillea seems to naturally create its own hybrids, so there is huge confusion about how many species there really are. If you consult five different plant books, you’ll probably get five different answers. Also, since it has spread to so many places, the same species may have several different names depending on where in the world you are.

Use care when pruning. The thorns can easily tear exposed skin, and the sap is slightly toxic and may cause a skin rash. Some people plant bougainvillea as a sort of security fence; no would-be intruder will try to climb through a dense growth of this vine. It’s probably best not to use it in high-traffic areas for the same reason.

Flamboyantly colored, drought resistant, insect resistant, and salt tolerant, the bougainvillea has many characteristics that make it a great choice for any garden.