Gardens - Bougainvilleas

Think Spain, think Bougainvilleas © Michelle Chaplow
Think Spain, think Bougainvilleas © Michelle Chaplow

Blowsy Beauties - Bougainvilleas.

by Lorraine Cavanagh

Bougainvilleas are passion. Passionately colourful, passionately vibrant, passionately floriferous - reflecting life in Spain. They remind me of flouncy flamenco dresses, frilled and ruffled, gorgeously swirling over walls and pergolas.

They're such a common sight in Spain and a 'must have' plant that you may be surprised to learn that they're not native to the Mediterranean but to Brazil. In 1768, French botanist, Dr. Philibert Commerson, first saw the stunning vine and named it in honour of his ship's Captain, and close friend, Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. This plant would have been bougainvillea glabra, parent of many stunning modern-day varieties. Originally b. glabra and b. spectabilis were classed as the same plant and it wasn't until the mid 1980's that they were seen as distinct species. Such a brilliant performer, the plant met with immediate acclaim: breeding nurseries in England and France sent plants worldwide. But an important step in bougainvillea history did occur in a Mediterranean garden belonging to Mrs. R.V. Butt - the birth of a crimson bougainvillea. Originally thought to be a distinct species, it was named b. buttiana though it is now believed to have been a natural hybrid of b. glabra and b. peruviana. Subsequently, red/pink hybrids started occurring all over the world.

Most of you will know that the fabulous colours are formed by papery bracts which encase the real flower - a rather boring creamy-white tube! There are varieties with both single and double bracts. Bougainvilleas are famed for their brilliant blowsiness and capacity to grow huge.

The Family 

A member of the nytaginaceae family, there are 14 species ranging from scrambling shrubs to massive climbers but there are only 3 which are culturally important.
Bougainvillea glabra: has thinner, twiggy growth with short, thin, curved thorns. The leaves are elliptical and the bracts are triangular and pointed, ranging through white, lilac, mauve and purple. The creamy flowers are long and tube-shaped. Identified by Choisy in 1849.
Bougainvillea peruviana: has a looser, branching habit forming a climbing, spiny shrub with ovate leaves. The small crinkly roundish bracts are usually in magenta shades. Identified by Humbold and Bonpland 1808.
Bougainvillea spectabilis: a large climber with curved thorns and rounded, leathery leaves, sometimes slightly hairy underneath. Large egg-shaped bracts in rose pinks, reds and purple with pale corky bark when mature. Identified by Wildenow 1798.

However, a maze of breeding and cross-breeding can make it difficult to identify the exact parentage of modern-day hybrids, so don't worry about it too much

Planting Bougainvilleas

Bougainvilleas have a very delicate root system and stem to root connection so take great care when planting. Don't carry your plant by the stem and don't disturb that root ball. For the same reason, transplanting is difficult, so choose your position carefully, thinking many years ahead! Avoid planting near swimming pools - they are lovely but very messy plants; all those flowers have to fall sometime and somewhere - let it not be in your pool! Your plant will need at least 5 hours of sunshine daily to thrive; they prefer warm, sheltered situations though will survive a light frost when mature. In mild coastal climes, they often stay evergreen. The original purple, followed by the deeper colours, tend to be the hardiest. With maturity, they will become drought tolerant, flowering well on just an occasional soaking through the hot summer months. Never overwater - it weakens the plant, reduces flowering and can cause root rot. Feed with a general purpose fertiliser early in the growing season, changing to a high phosphorus and potassium feed in late spring/summer to promote strong root growth and good bract colour. Be aware that their colouring can vary according to growing conditions, position, soil and fertilising programme. Small, pale leaves often indicate an iron deficiency.

Healthy plants are largely pest-free, though do look out for mealy bugs and aphids, often accompanied by sticky honeydew and sooty mould. Apply an organic preventative, such as neem oil to keep your plant clean and healthy or, if the infestation is well-established, use an organic insecticide until the problem has cleared.

If you want to try propagation take 10 cm softwood cuttings, with the tip pinched out, during the summer months; they'll usually root in a couple of months. Hardwood winter cuttings are slower, 4 months or more, and best with some bottom heat.

Pruning your Bougainvilleas

Pruning is not so difficult, though it is a rather thorny job! Don't be afraid of it - your bougainvillea flowers on new wood so it needs to be pruned to provoke lots of blossoming. Simply cut all the side shoots, leaving 3 or 4 leaf buds, back to the main framework. Prune during the coldest part of the year when your plant is bare so that the framework can be more easily seen. Minor cutting back of long unruly shoots can be carried out at any time.

Be inventive with this luscious, floriferous plant - it's not just a climber! It makes wonderful and colourful groundcover tumbling down a bank; a spectacular arching shrub; an unusual and pretty small tree or standard; and it will claw its way up and cascade over an old tree, and it can form a lovely pot plant too. If planting in a pot, don't over-pot - it tends to flower best when the roots reach the side of the pot and are somewhat cramped.

BOUGAINVILLEAS have all the names under the sun from...... Scarlett O'Hara to Miss Manilla

Named varieties can be difficult to find here, but look out for:

Scarlett O'Hara: deep scarlet.
Camarillo Fiesta: orange fading to pink.
Miss Manilla: orange fading to pink.
Mahara Orange: double orange.
Mahara Pink: double pink.
Mrs. Butt: mid red.
Raspberry Ice: raspberry bracts, variegated foliage.
Summer Snow: pure white.
Golden Tango: golden yellow.
Begum sikhander: white and pink bracts, rare.

For sheer flower-power bougainvilleas are hard to beat and there's nothing better to add that brilliant splash of Spanish colour and verve to your white walls!

Lorraine Cavanagh is an expert in Mediterranean plants and the Author of the book, Mediterranean Garden Plants