A Palace of Bougainvillea

Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Photo: Getty Images

When I was small I hoped our bougainvillea might clamber all over our house and turn me into Sleeping Beauty, trapped inside my castle until my Prince came and woke me up…

Bougainvillea is like that. A good old-fashioned bougainvillea bush (there are modern varieties that have been bred to be more moderate) can climb over a twenty-storey building – or at least have a good try.

This is both a good and bad thing for gardeners. Bougainvillea will survive droughts, cyclones, tsunamis and any number of attacks by husbands determined to tame the jungle, or at least to firmly prune their backyards. On the down side, you have to be very, very careful where you plant it, especially if it’s over a fence and your neighbours aren’t all that fond of bougainvillea.

There are ways to tame a bougainvillea though. The first is to plant dwarf bougainvilleas. Dwarf bougainvilleas have normal-sized leaves and ‘flowers’ (bougainvillea’s ‘flowers’ are really the bracts surrounding the real but tiny flowers). However dwarf bougainvilleas aren’t nearly as vigorous as the big ones. Dwarf bougainvilleas are great for pots, especially on hot sunny patios. They’re good in big hanging baskets too. In fact a dwarf bougainvillea or six can give you masses of colour for little work and very little water for most of the year.

The other trick is to tame your bougainvillea early. We grow our bougainvilleas up big established trees. This means that in droughts when all else is dull we have a glorious blaze of colour over our pittosporums or our Italian pine-nut tree.

How to tame a giant bougainvillea

Be firm. Cut ALL of it back except for one long stem, which you train up the tree. Whenever the lower stem starts putting out more shoots trim them back too. You’ll need to check your bougainvillea every few months.

But once the main stem is happily among the branches you can just let it spread. Don’t worry – your bougainvillea will find its own way through the greenery to the sunlight and a good sturdy tree will also withstand a lot of bougainvillea. Just make sure it’s a BIG sturdy tree, or you’ll end up with no tree and all bougainvillea – and a lot of dead wood and leaves to make a mess underneath it all.

And be warned, too: bougainvillea won’t bloom for a while if you prune them too hard, and they won’t flower either till they have reached a nice treetop position. But once they are blooming you can safely cut out the lower shoots without affecting the brilliant display of colour up the top.

Where to grow bougainvillea

Bougainvillea will grow on a sunny patio and in any garden that doesn’t get colder than minus three degrees in winter. In cooler areas plant your bougainvillea in spring so it’s well established by next winter.

When to prune bougainvilleas

Prune bougainvillea after they’ve finished flowering, though you can hack back out-of-control growth at any time however this may result in more thorns.

Thorny bougainvilleas

Bougainvilleas that are pruned too much become extra thorny. The plant puts out more thorns to help the new growth ‘grip’ onto whatever it’s covering.

How high will my bougainvillea grow?

Dwarf bougainvillea will grow about two metres; large ones range from 20 to 40 metres.

Water shoots

These are long new shoots from the base. Cut them off as soon as they appear or you’ll ruin your bush’s shape. They often appear after a good fall of rain or from overwatering.

Where NOT to grow a bougainvillea

Don’t grow any bougainvillea in a hot, wet climate unless you’re not prepared to keep your bougainvillea firmly in check! Bougainvillea can be the most glorious and drought-hardy plants in your garden, but unless you do have a Prince with magical abilities with a brush cutter, don’t let it take over your fence, your house or the bush.

Your say: How do you maintain Bougainvillea? Share your gardening tips below...



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