Vibrant cascading vines glowing in glorious displays of color, the bougainvillea thrives and flourishes under the hot New Orleans sun.
The plant was found in Rio de Janeiro in 1768 by botanist Philibert Commerson, who named it after his friend French mathematician and explorer, Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, captain of the ship that carried Commerson to the New World.
The bougainvillea is a perennial vine that can grow up to 30 feet. The radiant blooms as we know them are not true flowers, but are three large papery bracts that encircle small, white flowers much like the poinsettia. These bracts appear in a variety of bold shades. With at least five hours of direct sunlight per day, a typical, healthy bougainvillea will bloom every five or six weeks, then rest from blooming for another four or six weeks and then bloom again.
It’s hardy, versatile and easy to grow. The biggest problem most of us run into is that we are impatient. Few, if any, flowers will be produced until the plant gets settled into its new location, and that might take a couple of years.
In the Broadmoor area, former mayor Moon Landrieu is the proud owner of breathtaking vine that spans two-stories when in full bloom. Landrieu and his wife, Verna, often visited Mexico, where he fell in love with the plant.
“Their beauty strikes the imagination,” he says.
He tried maintaining several bushes upon returning to Louisiana, but they kept getting hit by frost. In 1990, his daughter-in-law gave him one that was the right variety, (he doesn’t remember what kind), and now it thrives. Verna thinks the success of the plant is due to its location. “It has southern exposure and gets the morning light and then most of the afternoon light, as well. And I mulch it when it gets cold,” she says.
Bougainvilleas prefer a rich, slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.0. Apply about a tablespoon of a high-potash fertilizer, such as a hibiscus fertilizer every three to four weeks. Adding a tablespoon of Epsom salts when you fertilize can be beneficial, too. Avoid overdoing it with fertilizers because too much nitrogen will lead to a large, bushy green plant that produces just a few pretty flowers.
Though it seems counterintuitive, these plants tend to respond well to stress, such as heavy pruning and lack of water. Bougainvilleas are drought-tolerant, so bring the soil to visual dryness, the wilting point; then water thoroughly. Be sure you don’t water too often because that will cause the plant to stop blooming.
Bougainvilleas are not clinging vines, so they need support and attachment. Supply the vine with a sturdy trellis or arbor and secure the long shoots. They are sometimes grown around homes and yards as a security feature because of their sharp thorns. For that reason, too, don’t plant them too close to swimming pools or play areas.
They will do well planted in containers. Five-to-10-gallon clay containers, which tend to stay drier, work well. They also look good in hanging baskets. Since bougainvilleas bloom on new growth, feel free to cut them back to keep them under control and encourage branching. An ideal time to cut back bougainvillea is right after it finishes a bloom period. Remove dead wood as it occurs. Severe pruning should wait until the plant is semi-dormant in late winter.
Bougainvilleas are grown from stem cuttings because the horticultural varieties do not normally produce seeds. Cuttings of four to six inches should be dusted with rooting powder, planted at an angle in sand or other well-drained media and watered everyday until the roots and new shoots appear.
Then share your stunning bougainvilleas with all your gardening friends who then can plant them and add more breathtaking beauty to our New Orleans landscape.
These are well suited for trailing on entryways, arbors, from hanging baskets or cultivated as bonsai specimens. “Ambiance,” is one example, it’s a slow-growing dwarf variety, widely used in hanging baskets. This variety exhibits massive clusters of bright, orange buds that open to hot pink ruffled flowers.
“Miss Alice” is a thornless variety and is prized for its brilliant white clusters of flowers. The plant is often used as a ground cover or mass planting, reaching a mature height of 2 to 3 feet tall.
“Vera Deep Purple,” has brilliant fuchsia-colored clusters of flowers. A low-growing plant, it reaches a mature height of 4 feet tall and grows up to 4 feet wide.
“Lady Baring,” is a vigorous and fast-growing evergreen. Exhibiting massive clusters of bright yellow flowers, the plant adds bold color to home landscapes. It can grow 25 to 30 feet tall and up to 8 to 10 feet wide, demanding plenty of room.