Bougainvilleas are passion. Passionately colourful, passionately vibrant - reflecting their life in Spain. They remind me of flouncy flamenco dresses, frilled and ruffled, gorgeously swirling over walls and pergolas.
They’re such a common sight in Spain that many of you might be surprised to learn that they’re not a native of the Mediterranean but of coastal areas of Brazil. In 1768, French botanist, Dr. Philibert Commerson, first saw the stunning vine and named it in honour of the Captain of his ship and close friend, Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. This plant would have been bougainvillea glabra, parent of many stunning modern-day varieties. Originally b. glabra and b. spectabilis were classed as the same plant and it wasn’t until the mid 1980’s that they were reclassified as distinct species. Such a brilliant performer, it met with immediate acclaim and nurseries in England and France did brisk trade sending plants worldwide. An important step in the history of bougainvillea occurred in a Mediterranean garden belonging to Mrs. R.V. Butt – the birth of a crimson bougainvillea. Originally thought to be a distinct species, it was named b. buttiana though it is now believed to have been a natural hybrid of b. glabra and b. peruviana. Subsequently, red/pink hybrids started occurring all over the world.
Most of you will know that the fabulous colours are formed by papery bracts which encase the real flower – a rather boring creamy-white tube. Bougainvilleas are famed for their brilliant blowsiness and capacity to grow huge.
A member of the nytaginaceae family, there are 14 species ranging from scrambling shrubs to massive climbers but there are only 3 which are culturally important.
Bougainvillea glabra: has thinner, twiggy growth with short, thin, curved thorns. The leaves are elliptical and the colourful bracts are triangular and pointed; they range through white, lilac, mauve and purple. The creamy flowers are long and tube-shaped. Originally identified by Choisy in 1849.
Bougainvillea peruviana: has a looser more branching habit forming a climbing, spiny shrub with ovate leaves. The small crinkly roundish bracts are usually in magenta shades. Named by Humbold and Bonpland 1808.
Bougainvillea spectabilis: a large climber with curved thorns and rounded, leathery leaves, slightly hairy underneath. Large egg-shaped bracts in rose pinks, reds and purple with pale corky bark when mature. Described by Wildenow 1798.
A maze of breeding and cross-breeding can make it difficult to identify the exact parentage of modern-day hybrids.
Bougainvilleas have a very delicate root system and root connection to the stem, so take great care when planting. Don’t carry your plant by the stem and don’t disturb that root ball. For the same reason, transplanting is difficult, so choose your position carefully thinking ahead for many years! Avoid planting near swimming pools as they are, admittedly, messy plants; all those flowers - produced during spring, summer and autumn – have to fall sometime and somewhere – let it not be in your pool! Your plant will need at least 5 hours of sunshine daily to thrive; they prefer warm, sheltered situations though will survive a light frost when mature. In mild coastal climes, they often stay evergreen. With maturity, they will become drought tolerant, flowering well on just an occasional soaking through the summer months. Never overwater – it weakens the plant, reduces flowering and can cause root rot. Feed with a general purpose fertiliser at the start of the growing season and then change to a high phosphorus and potassium feed going into late spring/summer to promote strong root growth and good bract colour – though colouration can vary a little according to growing conditions, position, soil and fertilising programme. Small, pale leaves can indicate an iron deficiency.
Healthy plants are largely pest free though do keep an eye out for mealy bugs and aphids, often accompanied by sticky honeydew and sooty mould.
If you want to try propagation – and maybe create your own colour! – try 10 cm softwood cuttings, with the tip pinched out, during the summer months; they’ll usually root in a couple of months. Hardwood winter cuttings are slower, 4 months or more.
Pruning is not so difficult, though it is a rather thorny job! Don’t be afraid of it – your bougainvillea flowers on new wood so needs to be pruned to be floriferous. Simply, cut all the side shoots, leaving 3 or 4 leaf buds, back to the main framework. This should be carried out during the coldest part of the year. Minor cutting back of long unruly shoots can be carried out at any time.
Be inventive in your use of this luscious and floriferous plant. It’s not just a climber! It makes wonderful groundcover; a spectacular arching shrub, an unusual and pretty small tree or standard, and it will claw its way up and cascade over an old tree, and form a lovely pot plant too. Don’t over-pot – it tends to flower best when the roots reach the side of the pot.
The deeper colours tend to be the hardiest. Named varieties are difficult to find here, but look out for:
Scarlett O’Hara: deep scarlet.
Camarillo Fiesta: orange fading to pink.
Miss Manilla: orange fading to pink.
Mahara Orange: double orange.
Mahara Pink: double pink.
Mrs. Butt: mid red.
Raspberry Ice: raspberry bracts, variegated foliage.
Summer Snow: pure white.
Golden Tango: golden yellow.
Begum sikhander: white and pink bracts, rare.
Have a lovely colourful summer and please take note of our revised July opening times.
Lorraine Cavanagh has lived in Spain for 23 years; a mother, grandmother and hispanista, her passions are plants, the environment, food and drink, and travelling within Spain. A landscape gardener and writer, she’s always happy to give advice. Call and see her at Viveros Florena, near Cómpeta – have free coffee and cake in their tea-rooms. July Opening Hours Tuesday-Saturday, 9 - 2
Her book Lorraine Cavanagh’s Mediterranean Garden Plantshas been nicknamed ‘the bible’. The new edition at €24.90 is now generally available throughout Spain.