Flamboyant Bougainvilleas

By Frank La Rosa

No plant signifies the tropics of South America more than the Bougainvillea. It was first classified by Philibert Commercon, a botanist who accompanied the French explorer and admiral Antoine de Bougainvillea (1729-1811). The plant was discovered in Brazil, and from there it was sent from Rio de Janeiro to Europe from where it spread throughout the garden world.

Bougainvilleas belong to the Nyctaginaceae family, that of the Four-O-Clocks. There are fourteen species, of which B. glabra (more hardy) and B. spectablis (delicate) are the two species plants from which most hybrids derive. Now there are many, many varieties.

What we call the flowers of Bougainvilleas are not the true flowers at all. The real flowers are actually the tiny white, tubular flowers at the center of the colorful bracts. A bract is a modified leaf associated with a flower (in close proximity), not to be confused with a sepal, those greenish petal-like appendages at the bases of most flowers. These flamboyant bracts are what give Bougainvilleas their bright colors, grace, and charm.

Bougainvilleas grow well in almost any venue just as long as there is little frost. They are grown mostly in South Florida and California, but they grow well indoors as houseplants anywhere. What a refreshing ambiance they bring to garden rooms and conservatories!

These beautiful plants grow well against a wall, scrambling around columns, and from hanging baskets.

The key to keeping them beautiful is in the pruning. They can’t be neglected or they will become massive hulks with too much green. If kept trimmed properly, the bracts keep coming on. As always, keep them well watered and fertilized as they are getting started. However, once established and growing, they need little care except for intelligent pruning. I have one forty year old Bougainvillea that scrambles over my green house, and I keep it under control as a large bonsai. It provides a small amount of shading, has a thick trunk, and has lovely red-purple “flowers.”

Bougainvilleas have weak fibrous roots when young so they must be staked and tied until their branches are thick enough to withstand the wind. The stems are very brittle and have strong thorns that can hurt, so these plants are often useful as barriers. They can grow larger than forty feet tall.

I adore Bougainvilleas when they are planted side by side, intertwining with various colors that resonate or contrast. They together give a varied texture of color swirls.

“San Diego Red” is rich red-orange, “Barbara Karst,” magenta-red, “California Gold” an orange-yellow, “Sundance” red- orange, “Raspberry Ice” has variegated leaves, and there are tinted whites.

How can a Bougainvillea not succeed with the name of “Scarlet O’Hara”? It is the most mentioned Bougainvillea of all time, just like the popularity of the novel and movie. From its ubiquitous citations in plant catalogs, it seems that nursery people have read only one novel and seen just one movie, Margaret Mitchell’s famous and memorable “Gone With the Wind.”