With our lovely winter approaching, we will begin to see the bougainvillea plants respond with color and character. This is a species that embodies the saying, “Look, but don’t touch.” As landscapers, we sometimes have a love/hate relationship with bougainvilleas because they tend to be finicky in the wet, humid summer and because they are always a challenge to prune. But there can be no doubt that bougainvilleas are stunning plants which really show their colors when responding to stress and neglect.
By “neglect”, it simply means that this is a plant that likes to be left alone. Occasional pruning and nutrients are fine, but don’t overdo it. Growing like a thorny vine, a bougainvillea is better suited to planting at a distance, not up close. Planting them too near will require constant manicuring, and this is the opposite of what a bougainvillea wants. If you want the bougainvillea close to you, I recommend one of the dwarfed varieties, but be warned, its true nature will often materialize after a few years, and even the dwarfed ones will start to revert and rapidly grow. It is better to plant them away from walkways and structures and to allow them to stretch out. A good, hard cut-back (after the threat of frost has passed) will look drastic and unsightly, but within weeks, the bougainvillea will bounce back and start producing new leaves. In fact, I’ve taken down bougainvillea with 15’ and 20’ branches, and I cut them right to the ground; they came back beautifully. Whereas, cutting to the ground is an extreme example, it shows that the plant can usually handle hard pruning.
Consider the bougainvillea for your landscape, and keep in mind that planting in an area allowing growth is key to getting as much color as possible. Pruned branches just do not flower as well as unpruned ones. And a bougainvillea’s tiny, white flower is couched in the colorful bracts we have grown to associate with Florida’s landscape. This drought tolerant plant is a great choice if we respect its characteristics and allow it to flaunt its vanity.