Bougainvillea was first discovered by a French botanist, Philibert Comerson, in the late 1760’s whilst plant hunting on the coast of Brazil and named for the leader of the expedition, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. It was first botanically described in 1849 and is believed to have been brought to Europe in the late 1850’s with the first cultivated plant in Europe recorded as flowering in Norfolk in 1860.
Bougainvillea is a riot of colour for nine or ten months of the year. This is one of the classic Mediterranean plants – adorning garden and house walls with show stopping colour effects. The colours available run through reds, orange, pink and white. There is a form with variegated foliage. The vibrant and long lasting colour displays come from the leaf-like bracts which surround the very small white flowers. Some of the oldest varieties come from the Brazilian species, B. glabra, which is also the most hardy.
The natural habit is a climbing plant as the stout spines in the leaf axils attach themselves to structures, trellis, host trees or palms. They can grow up to nine or ten metres high so plant them where they can have plenty of room. They can also be used as ground cover and will tolerate poor soil and little water but may not produce their best display under these conditions. We are experimenting with bouganvilleas on a rough steep bank as ground cover.
Bougainvillea only flower well on new growth so pruning is essential at some point. Here on the Algarve hard pruning can be undertaken at the end of January or during February – any shaping or hard pruning needed should be done before growth starts in early spring. They will not tolerate wet roots in winter and although preferring rich loamy, well-drained soils they are very tolerant and adapt to many soil types. Light feeding and some water through the summer will be of benefit. The bougainvilleas are salt tolerant but do need full sun for best displays. Watering during the first couple of summer seasons aids establishment but they will tolerate short periods of drought. Propagation of favourite colour forms is best done by cuttings taken in summer.