Most plants go by at least two different names — and in addition to a common name and a scientific name, they’ll often have two or three nicknames as well. Bougainvillea is a notable exception. This genus of beautiful ornamental woody plants only really has a single name, which is common as well as botanical: Bougainvillea. They are sometimes called paper flower plants, owing to the delicate appearance of their bracts.
Bougainvillea, which is very popular as a houseplant, is most famous for its large pink “flowers”. The structures that you’d easily confuse for flowers are, in fact, “bracts” — leaf-like structures that can help to attract and trap insects. Some varieties give rise to purple, pale lavender, red, or white bracts. The bracts largely conceal Bougainvillea’s actual blooms, which are small flowers.
If you’re a fan of these blooms, you are in luck — Bougainvillea can flower during the spring, summer, and in fall! In the wild, in their native regions, Bougainvillea grows into sprawling shrubs, vines, or even trees; something you might not even realize if you have only ever admired Bougainvillea as a houseplant. Unless you live in a region warm enough to sustain these plants as woody shrubs, you’ll have to stick to enjoying them as annuals or houseplants.
- Bougainvillea is a small genus of 18 flowering, woody, plants. Their colorful pink, purple, red, orange, or white bracts — which hide their smaller flowers — are their defining characteristic. In their native tropical and subtropical habitats, Bougainvillea species can grow to be as tall as 40 feet (nearly 13 meters)! Most people grow Bougainvillea as much more modestly-sized houseplants, though.
- The genus was named after French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who discovered these plants in Brazil in the 1700s.
- Bougainvillea plants belong to the Nyctaginaceae botanical family, which is also called the four o’clock family.
- Almost all of the bougainvillea varieties currently in existence are the result of cultivation efforts, and originate from three common ancestor species. As hybrid plants, no actual geographical origins can be ascribed to these varieties.
- If you live in a hotter region, you may be able to grow bougainvillea outdoors in the garden — these beautiful plants can thrive as larger vines in regions such as Florida, California, and South Carolina. People living in regions with hot summers but colder winters can opt to bring the very frost-sensitive bougainvillea plants outside during the summer, while taking them inside to overwinter.
- Bougainvillea plants are easy to train into particular shapes and sizes, and they are very popular as bonsai plants.
- Some bougainvillea are fast-growing, while others grow very slowly.
- In their native regions around the equator, bougainvillea vines, shrubs, and trees tend to bloom throughout the year. The blooms do not last quite as long when bougainvillea species are kept as houseplants in more temperate regions, and instead have bloom cycles that typically last between a month to a month and a half — flowering three times a year, during the spring, summer, and fall.
- Bougainvillea plants have a reputation for being non-toxic. They do, however, grown hardy thorns that can lead to minor injuries when bougainvillea are kept as houseplants, and more extensive injuries when they grow as shrubs. Contact with the sap of these plants has also been known to lead to skin irritation. Despite being non-toxic or only very mildly-toxic to pets, bougainvillea plants are definitely not edible.
- Mealybugs are the most common problem bougainvillea encounters when grown as a houseplant. Spraying your bougainvillea with neem oil as a preventative measure is not recommended, but this would be the right treatment approach if you do spot mealybugs.
Bougainvillea Features: An Overview
- Bougainvillea may be a genus of woody bushes and vines in its native habitat, but as a houseplant, it is a small and showy ornamental.
- When bougainvillea is kept as a houseplant or in a conservatory, it can — depending on the variety — reach heights of a maximum of around two to six feet (up to two meters). Bonsai varieties are popular, and when pruned and trained, bougainvillea can be small enough to keep in a pot on your desk, or in a slightly larger hanging basket. Their spread is nearly as wide.
- Bougainvillea is a generally broadleaf evergreen with simple, elliptical or heart-shaped, leaves that feature pointy tips. In climates with cold winters, they are deciduous.
- The small blooms of the bougainvillea species, which may be white or yellow, are encircled by large and beautiful bracts, which many people confuse for flowers. The tall bracts, which can appear in a variety of colors, have three lobes and have a fragile paper-like appearance — giving these plants the nickname “paper flower”.
- These plants naturally have climbing and arching habits.
- The woody stems of bougainvillea species feature sharp thorns.
- Bougainvillea produces long, slender fruits.
- Some of the most popular varieties of bougainvillea include Bougainvillea ‘Barbara Karst’ with deep pink bracts, Bougainvillea ‘California Gold’, with yellow flowers and deeper yellow bracts, and Bougainvillea ‘Sundown Orange’, with bracts that transform from orange to a beautiful coral tone. Growing several varieties of bougainvillea in close proximity can allow you to create an extraordinarily colorful indoor landscape!
Whether grown indoors or — if you live in the right climate — in the garden, bougainvillea plants are considered to be moderately challenging to grow and care for, and they would fall into the medium-maintenance category.
When grown as a houseplant, bougainvillea can tolerate temperature ranges between 40 and 80 °F (five to 27 °C). This plant strongly prefers to remain in the 60 to 70 °F (16 to 22 °C) temperature range, though — and to thrive, this beautiful tropical plant absolutely requires full, bright, sun exposure six hours a day, or even longer.
That’s why you should place any bougainvillea houseplant in a very bright spot, where it can soak up those sun rays. If your region enjoys hot summers, go right ahead and move your bougainvillea’s pot outdoors for a while. As the seasons change, always be on the lookout for a brighter and potentially better location for your plant, and feel free to move it around to chase the sun — the plant won’t be stressed by these relocations.
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Soil-wise, it’s best to chose a slightly acidic, nutritious potting mix for your bougainvillea. The soil should be well-draining, and sandy and loamy soils also suit bougainvillea’s needs well. Try not to repot your bougainvillea more often than once every few years. Some varieties spread and grow quickly, so it’s optimal to select a much larger pot than you think you’ll need to prevent the need for repotting.
Because established bougainvilleas grown indoors will bloom seasonally, three times a year, it is no surprise that these plants are hungry for fertilizer. Offer your bougainvillea a heavily-diluted fertilizer every week to encourage strong and healthy blooms.
Your bougainvillea will need to be pruned, but do so after the last bloom during the fall, just before it will go dormant for the winter. If you overprune these plants, the bracts will be less colorful and abundant — taking away from bougainvillea’s most striking feature! Note that root pruning is an important way to keep the size of your bougainvillea under control.
Watering Bougainvillea Plants
Watering bougainvillea is somewhat of an art form, owing to the fact that its moisture requirements vary from season to season. Indoor bougainvillea plants, which bloom cyclically three times a year, need active support in their growing seasons. Failing to water them sufficiently, so that bougainvillea’s soil is constantly moist, will cause them not to flower as abundantly.
However, these plants do best if their soil is allowed to dry nearly completely before being watered again during the winter, mimicking the tropical regions they hail from — which would feature dryer periods punctuated by heavy showers. These plants, which are also known as paper flowers, fair pretty well with occasional droughts. Only watering bougainvillea sporadically during the winter period, when bougainvillea goes through a dormant stage, will encourage this plant to offer the most attractive bloom when spring emerges again.
A young bougainvillea plant will need more water to help it grow. It’s best to keep the soil moist constantly when your bougainvillea is young.
It is important to note that you should neither overwater your bougainvillea plant or give it too little water — as both can cause your plant to perish in different ways, and bougainvillea are more picky about their watering than many plants. Overwatering your bougainvillea could lead to diseases like root rot, while underwatering your bougainvillea cant cause your plant to wilt. Should you notice signs of either, adjust the amount of water you give your bougainvillea.
Propagating Bougainvillea Plants
Propagating any plant may be a bit tricky for gardeners who are just starting out but experienced gardeners who have propagated many plants can do it with ease. Bougainvillea isn’t too complicated to propagate and can be started through stem cuttings and from seed. Propagating through stem cutting is the advised approach.
Let’s take a look at exactly how you can propagate a bougainvillea plant. To start a new bougainvillea from cuttings, simply follow along with this process:
The steps to propagate a bougainvillea plant through are:
- Select a decent-sized container with ample drainage holes for your new cutting — because many bougainvillea varieties are fast-growers, choose a pot that’s slightly larger than you think you will need.
- Place suitable potting soil into the container of your choice — loam soil is great for bougainvillea plants. Pre-moisten this soil for the cutting.
- Select some suitable stems from a mature, healthy, and strong bougainvillea plant. Take a look around your existing bougainvillea plant and search for softwood stem that is neither excessively woody nor brand new.
- You are ready to take the stem cutting now! Using a sharp pruning tool, which should be sterilized, cut a length of approximately four to five inches (10 to 13 centimeters) of a softwood stem with four to six nodes.
- While optional, you can dip your new stem cutting in root hormone powder to make the growing process even easier, shaking off the excess before planting your bougainvillea cutting.
- Detach all the leaves on your bougainvillea stem cutting, and plant it in to about one to two inches.
- After a couple of months you should notice that your bougainvillea has taken root! Just give it a (very gentle) tug to check.
- Keep caring for your plant by feeding it fertilizer.
Here’s a look at the process used to to propagate a bougainvillea from seed:
- During the fall, your mature bougainvillea plant will grow seed pods in the center of their tiny flowers (not the bracts, the actual flowers). You will want to harvest these seed pods and then dry them for propagation.
- Take the small seeds out of the seed pods and plant them just below the soil. While they can be planted at any time of the year, you will need to keep them warm.
- Patience is key! The germination process could take a couple of months. Because propagating from seed is tricky, simply try using stem cuttings next time if it doesn’t work.
Most readers won’t live in tropical climates where bougainvillea species can truly thrive outdoors in the garden, but everyone can enjoy bougainvillea as a beautiful houseplant. The care these showy plants require may be a little daunting for novices, but as long as you are able to provide an adequate temperature range and keep your bougainvillea in a bright and sunny spot, these lovely plants will thank you for your care with impressive blooms three times a year.
Any houseguests you have will be impressed, too — so you’re bound to be asked to share your bougainvillea with your relatives, friends, and neighbors. Propagating from seed is hard, so simply take stem cuttings to propagate bougainvillea.