Bougainvillea – When you just want to say “I live somewhere tropical :P”

I meant to post this while I was on vacation, but, well, I was on vacation and did not feel like messing with my ‘puter. I am posting this now but backdating it to when I wrote it.

Bougainvillea vineWhen I travel, I like to take note of the plant life around me. Not just because I am a gardener, but because it can be a good point of reference for the free wheeling traveler. For example, if I wake up from a drunken haze and peer up at a tree branch above me and see maple leaves, I know that I must have stumbled onto a plane that landed in a temperate region. If, on the other hand, if I am kidnapped by terrorists and when they take off my blindfold, I see bougainvillea vines draping the landscape, I will know that my kidnappers had the good taste to hold me in a tropical climate.

There is no better plant on the planet that better botanically represents being on vacation than the brightly hued bougainvillea. I have seen it used for everything from a shrub, a hedge, a wall covering, a pergola draping and as an unintentional camouflage for abandon buildings.

This plant is both versatile and resilient, making it perfect for regions with extreme climates, where heat is constant and in the course of a year, rainfall fluctuates between a glob of spit from a passing construction worker to monsoon. It is also just as happy to grow where monsoon is actually a season, not an occurrence as it is to grow on the fringes of the desert. But in areas where rainfall is consistently high, the plant will not flourish as well as it does in areas that have dry seasons.

But, much like a high school quarterback’s girlfriend, they are lovely to look at but painful to touch. The vines of the bougainvillea are spiked with fiendishly wicked hooked thorns. These thorns help it to climb up over competing plants, structures and slow moving vehicles. Like most tropical plants, it grows rapidly and can be a nuisance in its ideal environment.

While most people grow them for the brightly colored “flowers”, the bright colors are not flowers at all. They are bracts. The real flowers and the small white tubes that you can find hidden among the bracts.

One of the nice things about bougainvillea and what makes it so popular is that it is a year round bloomer. After blooming starts, the flowers (and bracts) will stick around for about 4 weeks and fade, and then will reappear a few weeks later to repeat the performance. As long as the plant receives some, even minimal amounts of water, it will continue in the cycle. If the plant finds itself in a severe drought situation, it will shed all of its leaves and regrow them when the water returns.

The bougainvillea is named for the French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who along with his on-ship, girlfriend smuggling botanist, “found” it in Brazil in 1768, in much the same way most Europeans “found” most things in the already populated Americas.

But, for as much as the bougainvillea represents the tropical world, the clever Dutch, the kings of horticultural miracles, are conspiring to develop a cold hardy bougainvillea. Which worries me a little bit. How the hell am I suppose to know generally where in the world I have been taken by kidnappers if these festive beauties could soon be grown anywhere in the world?

10 thoughts on “Bougainvillea – When you just want to say “I live somewhere tropical :P”
  1. I grew up in Colombia and there are some HUGE beautiful bougainvilleas. I have always love them. I’ve even considered trying to grow one here in Ohio by overwintering it in the basement.


  2. I really enjoy your sense of humor. And the fact you mentioned the French mariner Bougainville! Bougainvillier grows all over New Caledonia and throughout the Pacific.


  3. To your last rhetorical question ( insert oblivious response here…)

    repeated semi scientific experiments. for this you will require elixir or trade medium and a permanent marker. Record the notes each morning or each conscious period when ever they should occur….

    try not to scribble over any important looking phone numbers….

    ps – if science follows strict rules, why is it spelled wrong ? I b 4 EEEEEE ! Bring on the elixar..


  4. Thank you for that, most interesting.
    Living in Crete, as I do, I am surrounded by this wonderful plant. I love it but don’t like the clearing up of bracts.
    I must point out though, there is a winter-only flowering type.


  5. I live in a busy neighborhood in San Francisco, and we have a purple bougainvillea trained up the side of the house. It attracts so much attention, and it seems that thousands of tourists take pictures of it. I love the flowers, but those thorns make it a painful plant to prune.


  6. LOL…the quarter back’s girlfriend!!!

    I have a bougainvillea here in cool W. Washington State (zone 8) I grow it in a big pot, it adorns the back patio in the summer and livens up the sun room in the winter…LOVE it! Great post!


  7. I hate bougainvilleas. I used to like the way they look, but my fence neighbor planted several, and my yard is south from his.
    These are aggressive bastards. The climb over everything. They are very hard to control. They strangle everything around them. And the spikes penetrate thick leather gloves, and hurt as if they have poison as well as being sharp.

    They are lovely away from me!


  8. I’ve got bougainvillea growing in my backyard, and it’s perfect for reinforcing fences (no one’s going to climb over these suckers). I do have to stay on top of pruning it, or those same thorns mean I don’t want to go anywhere near it, and they have distinct climb-and-conquer tendencies, but you can’t beat them silhouetted against a white stucco wall…


  9. stephen on


    I live in Sydney Australia and lots of people use Bougainvilliar’s, They are so beautiful

    I am making a hedge at the front of my house with bougainvilliars and am not sure how far apart to plant them I will be using 3 diferant colours for a nice effect, can you advise me the best distance apart to plant them for a hedge.



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