Bougainvilleas like it hot. That’s why these Brazilian natives do so well on top of toasty tile roofs or on sizzling, south-facing facades. Warm is their kind of weather, summer their time of year.
“Best planted in the summer” is the succinct but seldom followed advice on bougainvilleas from Roland Stewart Hoyt in his classic 1933 handbook on gardening in Southern California. If more frequently followed, one might not hear so many complaints about bougainvilleas just sitting there, sulking, for as long as a year after planting.
Certainly, they can be planted at other times, but now, in early summer, is best. “Boogies,” as gardeners are fond of calling them, will grow quickly and surely.
Unless you handle the roots roughly. This is the other reason newly planted bougainvilleas do not grow well. Their roots are easily damaged--"fragile” is one description--and they do not knit together to form a solid root ball. If you try to tap one out of the container in the conventional fashion, you are likely to end up with a handful of soil and broken roots.
This is not an old wives tale. “You have to handle the root ball very carefully,” said Lew Whitney at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, who planted hundreds when he managed Roger’s landscape division.
“When they came in metal cans, we didn’t even try to get them out of the pot. We cut the can and planted it along with the root ball (it eventually rusted away). Now we carefully, very carefully, slide the root ball out of the plastic can.”
“Ironically,” he adds, “you can’t kill an established bougainvillea. Try getting rid of a 15-year-old giant.”
Daryl Hosta, who runs his own Santa Monica landscape design and installation company, has also planted more than a few boogies, and he thinks things are getting better. “Nurseries used to sell immature plants that simply fell apart when they came out of the pot, but now plants are more mature and better rooted. However, we are still very careful.”
Another piece of classic bougainvillea advice that still applies is to stop watering about now. This encourages flowering, but only applies to plants that have been in the ground a few years. In fact, Whitney suggests never watering bougainvilleas that have been in the garden for five or more years, and says they are right at the top of most drought-resistant plant lists.
“No heavy fertilization either,” cautions Hosta. “They don’t need it.”
More age-old advice that still applies: “Always prune drastically in spring.” That’s the best time to prune and pruning is necessary on most of the tall, vining kinds such as the bright red, house-smothering ‘Barbara Karst’ or the deep ‘San Diego Red,’ which is one of the best to espalier on a wall. Wait until summer to prune and there may be no flowers; prune in fall or winter and frost may nip back the new growth.
Many say you can’t prune a bougainvillea too much, as long as you don’t denude it of foliage. Hosta strongly suggests wearing gloves because some boogies have nasty thorns. “Some hardly have any but others are a rattlesnake.”
In fact, you can prune bougainvilleas hard enough to turn them into a small lollipop tree. One new wrinkle in bougainvilleas is that they are now being sold as small trees. Even the giant ‘Barbara Karst’ can be pruned into a tame little tree.
You can grow these little trees in the ground or in a large container on a patio. Pruning the entire head each spring and nipping back any vigorous new branches throughout the summer will keep them this way.
Not all bougainvilleas are big vines. One named ‘Rosenka’ is a shrub, growing about five feet across by three feet tall, though you have to prune back the occasional six-foot stem. The flower bracts start out gold, then change to pink. A new variety of this, named ‘Oo-la-la,’ has the more conventional purplish-red flower bracts, but it is just as small and shrubby.
Whitney can’t say enough about these small bougainvilleas. They make good ground covers, are great in containers, or they can be used in a border of shrubby things like lavender, Pittosproum crassifolium ‘Compactum’ and Nandina ‘Gulfstream'--three of his favorite companion plants.
‘La Jolla’ and ‘Temple Fire’ are larger shrubby kinds, with red flowers. “Hawaii’ (also sold as ‘Raspberry Ice’) has creamy, variegated leaf margins, and ‘Orange Ice’ is a new version of this plant. All grow to about eight feet across, and to five feet high, like a fluffy haystack. Hosta likes them for hillside ground covering.
“They’re great for hiding ugly old retaining walls or other eyesores,” Whitney said.
Another early California garden writer, Belle Sumner Angier, wrote in a 1906 book that “a misplaced bougainvillea can absolutely overshadow every other bloom in the garden, but she knew only the red and purple kinds.
Today, there are calmer shades of red, some that could even be called pink. There are oranges, and golds that come reasonably close to yellow. They are by no means quiet colors, anymore than Rio is a quiet town, but many of the newer colors are subdued and easier to work into gardens of more conventional color. The truly timid can always choose white.
A few think that these softer colors are slow, weak growers--wimps in the world of bouganinvilleas--but this may depend on where they are grown. Some suspect the softer colored kinds like more heat and do better inland, or in coastal areas south of Long Beach away from the lingering fog. They certainly grow fine in Hawaii.
Hosta simply doesn’t like them. He calls these newer colors “man-made” and thinks that if a bougainvillea is not red or purple, it’s not a boogie at all.
“There’s nothing like the reds and purples. They are stronger growers, and the colors are electric,” he said. Neon red and purple is what bougainvilleas are all about, he said, adding that the reds and purples do best at the beach, even in cool, foggy Santa Monica.
Whitney likes to plant two or three different vining bougainvilleas in the same hole so they knit together to make a multihued vine, a white, pink and red for instance. Two of his favorites to plant together are the “almost yellow” 'California Gold’ and the bronzy ‘Orange King.’ Hosta often plants the red and purple together.
If you do your shopping and planting at this time of year, you can usually find plants in bloom, so you can actually see the color. This helps avoid future disappointment, or shock.
Descriptions seldom do the bougainvillea flower bracts justice (the color is in the papery bracts; the botanically true flowers are the little white things at their base).
One described as “orange” could be, but it also might have another color running through it--pink mixed with orange for instance. Some of the mixes of color look better than they sound.
The chart below groups the vining kinds into admittedly loose color groups, but it should help narrow what has become a large field of summer hot colors.
Color Groups White
Mary Palmer’s Enchantment (big, strong grower)
‘Barbara Karst’ (rampant growth)
‘James Walker’ (suffused with purple)
‘San Diego Red’ (also sold as ‘Scarlett O’Hara’)
Orange to gold:
‘Camarillo Fiesta’ (suffused with pink)
‘Brasiliensis’ (also labeled as B. spectabilis , or simply “purple”)
‘Don Mario’ (suffused with red)