On a hot afternoon in L.A., great tufts of bougainvillea were blooming in three sorbet colors — soft pink, golden orange and screeching fuchsia. Not a lot of shade, but the effect was refreshing. We pulled over, put money in the meter, and walked.
These colorblocked bougainvilleas grow on Beverly Boulevard right in front of CBS Television City, between North Ogden Drive and Orange Grove Avenue. If you live in Southern California, chances are that bougainvilleas — a genus of vines and shrubs that can often be pruned into tree form — are a regular part of your visual day-to-day. The ‘Barbara Karst’ bougainvillea is ubiquitous in these parts; find it arching over doorways, blanketing walls and hopping fences with its rambling habit and flashy magenta bracts.
That’s right: the color you see during bloom season are the bracts, i.e. specialized leaves, and not the flower petals. The actual flowers are teensy. See the little white circles in the photos above?
Hardy in USDA zones 9b through 11, bougs bloom in the spring, peaking in mid-summer. (In cooler regions, they can be overwintered indoors.)
“Bougainvilleas like it hot. That’s why these Brazilian natives do so well on top of toasty tile roofs or on sizzling, south-facing facades. Warm is their kind of weather, summer their time of year,” writes Robert Smaus in his 1992 article, “Bougainvilleas: Summer Is Their Time of Year,” for the LA Times, where he was the garden editor. The show continues into autumn (even winter in warmer areas) for this plant that’s evergreen in the tropics and deciduous in regions of extreme cold and heat. Colors range from whites to pinks to purples, and playful gardeners have been known to grow these shades in great big jumbles. Some varieties even change color as they mature!
Which brings us to pruning. Pruning is essential if you want a colorful show, as flowers grow on new growth. Do it in spring, and beware the thorns that cover many varieties. We love everything Nell Foster of Joy Us Garden has to say on this topic.
Most bougainvilleas need at least five hours of sunlight per day and well-drained soil. When established, your plant will be quite drought tolerant. The roots, though, are exceedingly sensitive, so be very, very (as in life-or-death) careful with them when you bring home your boug. Bougainvilleas can be grown in pots if you want to avoid hassling the roots and if you want to limit their size. Varieties include dwarf, vining, tree-shaped and shrub, and can lend themselves to spectacular bonsai. For design lovers, this is one versatile plant!
Personally, though? Ryan and I have always been ambivalent about them.
The effect is pure glamor if the bougainvillea is done right. Alissa Walker of A Walker in LA did a fabulous photo project with artful bougs all over town in collaboration with the extraordinary Laure Joliet.
On the other hand, well…Way, way, wayyy back, when we first moved into our place, there was a highly lackluster boug growing purply-pink crinkly bracts in a sparse formation next to our mailbox. Taking a dim view on how it looked and the genus’s popularity in our neighborhood, we eventually swapped it out for a seven-foot-tall Spanish dagger. (We realize now that our containerized plant probably needed more regular deep waterings.) And thanks to the way dropped leaves and bracts can accumulate, a bougainvillea can turn into a literal rats’ nest (!!) if you’re not careful.
But we’re coming around to bougainvillea-ville. In a region where the landscape isn’t the relentless green of the Pacific Northwest and East Coast at the height of spring, bougainvilleas deliver exciting sweeps of color. They’re eye candy for drivers and a feast for pedestrians.