How to grow bougainvillea
All about bougainvillea: how to plant, grow and care for bougainvillea in our detailed Grow Guide.
Bougainvillea is a showy and spectacularly colourful evergreen plant for the home, conservatory, or greenhouse. The showy ‘flowers’ come in a huge colour range including purple, mauve, pink, apricot, red, yellow, and white. They're actually large paper-thin bracts which surround a central cluster of true flowers, which are tiny and white in colour.
Frost-free growing conditions are essential for bougainvillea, so here in the UK it can only be grown outdoors in summer. Bougainvilleas can produce repeated flushes of bloom for many months if conditions are right.
Bougainvilleas are often sold as house plants, usually trained around a hoop of wire or on a frame, but they can also be grown as a bush; up a wall or over an arch. By nature, bougainvilleas need plenty of room to grow and can easily reach two metres in height. Compact varieties of bougainvillea are available – they grow to around one metre high and work well as bushes or can even be planted into a hanging basket.
This dazzling plant is a familiar site in many hot countries where it can be seen scrambling up fences, over pergolas, forming hedge-like boundaries, and on villa walls. Bougainvillea originates from Brazil but has spread worldwide as a garden plant in places as diverse as the Mediterranean and California. Bougainvillea is named after the 18th century French admiral and explorer, Comte de Bougainville.
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How to grow bougainvillea
Grow bougainvillea in a frost-free place such as a sunny room, in a conservatory or a greenhouse that is heated in winter, so temperatures never fall below freezing. Bougainvillea plants can tolerate temperatures as low as 2 °C, but the ideal temperature during winter is 7-10°C. At temperatures below 10°C but above freezing, bougainvilleas may drop some or all of their leaves, but will regrow when the temperature rises again.
Regular pruning and seasonally adjusting watering and feeding are key to success with bougainvilleas. Tie them into their support regularly to keep their growth in check.
Growing bougainvillea: jump links
- Planting bougainvillea
- Caring for bougainvillea
- Pruning bougainvillea
- Propagating bougainvillea
- Growing bougainvillea: pests and problem-solving
- Where to buy bougainvillea
- Best bougainvilleas to grow
Where to grow bougainvillea
Bougainvillea needs full sun and can be grown by a window, in a conservatory, or a heated greenhouse. Those in pots that can be moved will benefit from spending the summer outdoors in the garden where they should be given a sunny and sheltered spot.
Bougainvillea stems are thorny, so bear this in mind when choosing where to grow it.
How to care for bougainvillea
Bougainvillea plants are often sold in small pots but these containers are rarely large enough so it's best to repot them into a larger pot as soon as you can. It's best to let your bougainvillea acclimatise to its new home for a few weeks before transplanting into a larger pot. Soak the roots in a container of water for an hour or so before removing the old pot and planting the bougainvillea in its new home.
Use a good quality, peat-free multi-purpose potting compost. Part fill the container and place the plant so the top of the compost will be a couple of centimetres below the rim of the new pot. When filling around the roots with compost, only firm it very gently. Water thoroughly so the compost settles and top up if necessary if any of the root ball is exposed.
In this Golden Rules video, Charlie Clarke of Westdale Nurseries reveals his three top tips on caring for bougainvilleas:
Watering and feeding bougainvillea
Seasonally adjusting the level of watering and feeding is important for success with bougainvilleas. During winter, only occasional watering is required – generally around once a fortnight but check the moisture level of the compost to make sure it’s not too damp or too dry.
In spring, increase the frequency of watering to twice or three times a week, depending on outside temperatures. Take care not to over-water bougainvilleas as they dislike having waterlogged roots. It’s best to water thoroughly and then allow the plant to almost dry out before watering again. In autumn, reduce the frequency of watering as growth slows.
Start feeding bougainvilleas once a week from mid spring until mid-autumn. Apply a liquid fertilizer high in nitrogen to encourage leafy growth, then when there’s plenty of growth and the bracts are developing, switch to a fertilizer that's high in potash (such as tomato fertilizer) which will boost growth and intensify the colour of the bracts.
Pinch off faded and dead bougainvillea flowers back to where they joined the stem, which will encourage new flowers.
Pruning and training bougainvillea
The main time to prune bougainvillea is at the end of February. During the growing season if the plant is outgrowing its site, light pruning can be done after each flush of flowers.
As bougainvilleas bear flowers on growth produced the previous year, take care not to remove too many stems. Start by removing any dead growth. Then, cut back to a bud or leaf joint, or if the plant is congested, remove entire shoots where they join the main stem.
Always wear gloves to protect your hands from the thorns.
Growing bougainvillea: problem solving
Bougainvilleas are largely trouble-free as long as they are given the right growing conditions.
Leaves that become yellow or pale in colour may be a sign of overwatering. Make sure water can freely drain from the compost and allow the compost to almost dry out between waterings. When in doubt, put a finger in the compost to test the level of moisture.
Unhealthy, pale-looking, or mottled growth on bougainvilleas growing indoors, in greenhouses or conservatories, is likely to be caused by scale insect or red spider mite. Often the first sign of a pest problem is a sticky substance that falls from the leaves onto the surface below. This is known as honeydew and is exuded by aphids and other sap suckers. The brown scales of scale insect can be found under leaves or in leaf joints, while red spider mite is barely visible to the naked eye and causes the leaves to mottle. Tiny webs can be found on the leaf undersides too. Both pests can be combatted with a biological control, but increasing humidity can also prevent attack.
Alan Titchmarsh offers advice on dealing with mealy bug on bougainvillea in this video.
How to propagate bougainvillea
Bougainvillea is hard to grow from cuttings, but if you fancy having a go, take cuttings of healthy young shoots in spring. Cuttings should be around 8 cm long. Dip the base in hormone rooting powder, put in a small pot of moist cuttings compost and place in a heated propagator.
Advice on buying bougainvillea
- There are many types of bougainvillea, in different shapes and sizes and flowering in a huge range of colours. Make sure you choose the right bougainvillea for your space
- Bougainvilleas are available from a range of garden centres, nurseries and online retailers. Bear in mind that specialist nurseries will have a wider selection for you to choose from
- Buy only the healthiest plants – check the plant over for signs of pests and damage before planting
Where to buy bougainvillea online
Bougainvillea varieties to grow
Garden centres usually offer a small selection of bougainvilleas. Specialist nurseries that supply plants by mail order will offer a much wider range.
- Bougainvillea ‘Pedro’ is a compact bougainvillea with fewer thorns than the species. It bears clusters of tiny white flowers surrounded by brick-red bracts.
- Bougainvillea ‘Show Lady’ bears clusters of tiny white flowers surrounded by white bracts.
- Bougainvillea ‘Snow Purple’ bears clusters of tiny white flowers surrounded by delicate pink-purple bracts.
- Bougainvillea ‘Temple Fire’ is a dwarf bougainvillea, bearing masses of bright fuchsia-pink bracts.