A Plant That Rewards You in Stress!

March 6, 2008

by Cliff Knezek, Victoria County Master Gardener
Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
The 'Barbara Karst' variety of bougainvillea can be found readily in the Victoria area; however, one this prolific is exceptional.  Last garden tour participants likely saw this bougainvillea traversing the poolside fence in the Fossati backyard tropical garden.
If you have lived or traveled in South Texas or the Rio Grande Valley, you have seen a climbing and hanging plant with spreading branches glowing with flowers in various colors.  This plant is known as a bougainvillea.  Named for Admiral Louis de Bougainvillea, who discovered the vine in 1768 during his explorations, the bougainvillea has become one of the most popular, spectacular, and beautiful tropical plants.  The plant is unusual for several reasons: it is sterile and propagated only from cuttings, it usually does better in pots than in the ground, and it rewards our neglect with abundant beauty on terraces, patios, decks, or at pool side.


The blooms as we know them are not true flowers, but are three large papery bracts that encircle small, white, tubular inconspicuous flowers much like the poinsettia.  Some of the most colorful bougainvilleas found in your local garden centers are the golden yellow “California Gold”; the “Vickie”, a gold and green-leafed variegation; the dark pink flowers of “Juanita Halten”;  “Sundown” with an apricot color; “Jamaica White” white, veined with green; “Texas Dawn” with smaller pink flowers in huge clusters; “Double Pink” clear pink;  “Surprise” large, clear pink-white bi-color flowers; and “Royal Purple” a striking purple flower.  The “Barbara Karst”, bright red to bluish crimson, that blooms early and likes heat, is a variety that we often see here in the Victoria area.

Bougainvilleas do best in large (5-10 gallon) clay containers or large hanging baskets.  If grown outdoors, clay containers tend to stay drier, thus stressing the plants.  The 12” hanging basket is much better as the plants do much better in this size.  Place containers in full sun, or in a place where they will receive at least ½ day of full sun.  If your bougainvillea is not blooming, it probably is not receiving sufficient sun or fertilizer.  These plants thrive in the tropics in areas of low rainfall and intense sun and heat.
The blooms of the bougainvillea as we know them are not true flowers, but are three large papery bracts that encircle small, white, tubular inconspicuous flowers much like the poinsettia.

As a member of the Nyctaginaceae (Four-O’Clock) tropical family, bougainvilleas are very vigorous, evergreen woody vines with thorns.  Although normally climbers, they can be trained to stay bushy as pot plants, hanging baskets, or as standard 3 or 4 feet high plant.  They will bloom beautifully on branches as long as 18”-20”.

Cuttings 4”-6” long will grow readily and will develop good root systems in 4-6 weeks.  When cuttings are well rooted, they can be potted in small containers in a perlite/peat moss mix.  When transplanting, exercise care since the fine roots often do not knit the soil together in a firm root ball.  When repotting annually, slice off the outer 1”-2” of the root ball, and repot in the same size container.  Bougainvillea need very bright light and do well in full sun.  Planting the bougainvillea in the ground may cause the plant to become vegetative and to bloom very little.  To encourage the bougainvillea to produce more branching, it is suggested that you continuously pinch the new growth.


You will have to take precautions in late fall from cold temperatures (below 40º F.). For those of you with greenhouses, move your bougainvillea in when the 40º F temperatures arrive.  The tropical blooming machine will be colorful all winter if you keep the greenhouse temperatures between 50ºF and 110ºF.  In the event you do not have a greenhouse, move the bougainvillea into the house or garage if it is insulated.  The plants have thorns and are difficult to store unless you have pruned it back to 6 to 8 inch stems.  Instead of doing the severe pruning in the fall, you can tie up the stems for storage.  The tying of the stems reduces the tendency for the plants in storage to put on a flush of growth.  When you move the plant back out into the landscape, you can prune the plant at that time.  If you notice a diminished growth every 2 years or so, it is recommended to consider repotting the bougainvilleas.


Bougainvilleas respond extremely well to stress, such as drought and heat, and will reward you with excellent blooms.   Keep the plant slightly on the dry side.  The plant does best when allowed to become root bound.  In containers the bougainvilleas should be watered frequently so the soil feels nicely soft but not soggy.  Water thoroughly, and then allow to become moderately dry between watering.    Even with a tolerance for drought, however, you end up watering plants nearly every day because of the small root system.  Irrigate enough at each watering so that the water comes through the drain holes in the bottom of the container.


Bougainvilleas are heavy feeders and will respond best to constant feeding with ½ strength water soluble fertilizer.  For example, some of the fertilizers are:  Peter’s 20-20-20, Excel 21-5-20, Miracle Grow or Rapid Grow.  With constant feeding and high light, the plants will bloom at least 11 months of the year.  And that’s not bad for a plant that rewards you in normally stressful conditions!


Barbara Karst – bright red to bluish crimson

California Gold – golden yellow

Double Pink – clear pink

Jamaica White – white, veined with green

Juanita Halten – dark pink

Sundown – apricot color

Surprise – large, clear pink-white bi-color flowers

Texas Dawn – smaller pink flowers in huge clusters

Royal Purple – a striking purple flower

Vickie – a gold and green-leafed variegation

1. Prepare beds for planting warm-season flowers and vegetables. Work in a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic material such as compost, pine bark, or sphagnum peat moss / 100 square feet.

2. Beware of closeout sales on bare-root trees and shrubs. The chance of survival is rather low on bare-root plants this late in the season.  Best bets for now are container-grown or balled-and-burlapped plants.

3. Be careful with weed killers, including those found in mixes of fertilizers and weed killers. Read and follow label directions.

4. Start hanging baskets of petunias and other annuals for another dimension in landscape color.

5. For early color in the landscape, try some of the following annuals as transplants: ageratums, cockscombs, fibrous rooted begonias, coreopsis, cosmos, cleomes, marigolds, nasturtiums, petunias, phlox, portulacas, salvias, sweet alyssums, sunflowers, and zinnias.

6. Check for lawn weeds now and treat or remove.

7. Don’t fertilize lawns now; wait until at least the first of April.

8. Start your compost pile now for spring/summer use.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas Cooperative Extension-Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, Texas 77901; or, or comment on this column at