By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Bougainvillea produce flame licks of color on a vine that can easily be trained to a vertical surface. The brilliant hot pinks and evocative orange tones spice up the landscape in warmer zones. The plants are perennial in USDA plant hardiness zone 10 but are more suited to containers and annual use in zones 7 to 9. Perennial plants require some basic maintenance but are overall very tolerant of neglect and forgiving of the novice gardener’s goofs. Learn how to prune a bougainvillea as part of its vertical training and to help increase the impact of this tropical plant.
The bougainvillea plant is native to Brazil and introduced to Europe in the 19th century. The famous Kew gardens were instrumental in the propagation and spread of the plants. Trimming bougainvilleas yields cuttings that were rooted and grown on for new specimens.
The startling colors of the plant are actually from bracts or modified leaves, not flowers as they appear. The best time to prune bougainvillea for cuttings is in late winter to earliest spring before new growth has flushed, but when bud nodes are swelling. There are now cultivars and crosses from several parent specimens that range in color, size and hardiness.
Pruning and trimming are two different things. Trimming establishes an outline and keeps a plant in a certain visual habit. Generally, trimming removes smaller material and leaves a certain silhouette.
Pruning is useful for training a plant and to remove old neglected branches. It is also the basis for the final adult plant’s scaffold. Trimming bougainvilleas helps keep the plant in an already chosen shape. This generally means tip pruning and light topping to minimize ranginess.
Bougainvillea pruning for hedges is severe, but usually the plants are trained to trellises or other vertical supports and need minimal pruning in early spring to enhance growth. Young plants need to be pruned from the base to force thicker growth.
Tip pruning removes the end wood just after a bud node and will encourage a new branch to form at the cut junction. Remove dead wood as it occurs but severe pruning must wait until the plant is semi-dormant in fall or early spring.
The vines need well-drained, yet moist, soil to thrive. Bougainvilleas are drought resistant and perform best if the soil is allowed to dry out between watering.
A full sun site is the best and bougainvillea flower most when the temperatures are moderate with long cooler nights in spring. The plants grow well in a greenhouse or in containers. Just don’t forget to move them indoors when temperatures begin to fall, as the plant has little cold tolerance.
Plants grown indoors should experience annual bougainvillea pruning for maintenance and to keep them small enough for transitional movement and ceiling height.
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Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spp.) is a tropical plant hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9B through 11. During times of hot or dry weather, varieties of bougainvillea will bloom with vibrant pink, purple, red, orange and white blooms. Left to its own devices, a bougainvillea may become unmanageably tall (up to 20 feet) and tangled with dead and living branches. For gardeners with limited space, pruning is an essential part of tending a bougainvillea. For the health and appearance of the plant, different types of pruning are best done at different times of year.
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by Ann Clary with C. Darren Butler
What makes bougainvilleas so appealing to gardeners around the world? Undoubtedly the profusion of colorful and long-lasting flower bracts, the specialized leaves that are often mistaken for blooms or petals. In Mediterranean and mild-winter California areas, bougainvillea are a signature landscape plant, offering their profuse displays in a range of colors including pink, purple, magenta, white, yellow, orange, and red. The true flowers are small and inconspicuous, white or cream colored, and nestled within the colorful bracts. Bougainvilleas are much loved for their exuberant and lasting display of summer color at a time when many other plants are suffering in the Southern California summer heat.
Bougainvillea plant cascading over wall
Pruning. Bougainvilleas produce their flower bracts or “bloom” on new growth. Frequent or at least annual pruning is important to encourage new growth that will produce the colorful bracts. Overgrown, neglected, enormous, thorny bougainvillea shrubs are a candidate for the worst-ever pruning nightmare. Older bougainvilleas tend become dense as dead leaves, spent bracts, old twigs, and other plant matter accumulates to form thatch within their twiggy interiors. Neglected bougainvillea may produce unwanted conditions such as taking up too much space, becoming difficult to manage and prune, becoming too large or heavy for supports, providing an almost-unassailable home for rodents, and losing their colorful and attractive appearance. The dense inner woody twigs and branches take up space and lack aesthetic value—and they don’t produce the lovely bracts.
It is particularly important to prune bougainvillea regularly to maintain reasonable branch structure, keep them manageable, and avoid tall, heavy, and/or unruly shrubs that put out little new growth each year and bloom only occasionally or minimally. Bougainvillea naturally produce many main stems that can become a tangle within just a few years. Vines can be pruned at almost any time of year except during periods of hot weather or frost.
Don’t hesitate to cut back larger, older stems as needed for good structure, or to provide a hard structural pruning every few years. Frost-free periods from winter through early spring when plants aren’t actively blooming are ideal for major pruning. Reasonably skilled structural pruning is important for bougainvillea. Hire a professional or take the time to learn proper structural pruning.
Simple pruning involves removing snipping here and there for shaping, cutting back generally to encourage new growth, and removing unwanted stems to encourage whatever permanent form is desired. To train your plant into an espalier or to direct it to grow and bloom in a specific location, attach selected larger branches to support and remove the smaller branches growing in the wrong direction. If you want your bougainvillea to grow on a fence, weave small and young branches throughout the links or open spaces. Remove or redirect uncooperative branches.
A tangle of main stems on old bougainvillea plant
Mature bougainvillea plant with interior thatch or plant debris
Bougainvilleas are one of those plants that benefit from frequent or almost constant cleanup and light pruning to keep them manageable and maintain their shape, including pinching back, light trimming, training, and cleaning up dead leaves and stems. Pinching or snipping off the tips of new shoots is an easy way to shape smaller plants to be more full and bushy, and is especially recommended for shrubby cultivars.
Bougainvilleas naturally follow a cycle of blooming followed by a rest period. Healthy plants that aren’t overwatered repeat this cycle during the warmer and drier parts of the year. Dedicated cleanup and moderate pruning is recommended during the rest period after every bloom cycle. Monitor or notice blooming to time your pruning during the rest period that follows.
Beware of maintenance gardeners who use hedge trimmers on bougainvilleas unless you want square or round shrubs and hedges! This practice may regularly remove the new growth needed to produce the colorful bracts, produce unattractive views of sheared stems, and tend to maintain bougainvilleas as nonblooming and nondescript green/brown shrubs.
Remember that pruning bougainvilleas can be a dangerous task: they have thorns! Gardeners should tackle bougainvillea pruning with a pair of pruners, loppers, heavy gloves, hat, eye protection, long sleeves and long pants.
Soil Amendments. Bougainvillea bloom best during warm weather after several weeks with little or no water and fertilizer, followed by generous watering and fertilizing. Allow dry periods, then fertilize with organic manures, compost, and/or a balanced fertilizer for blooming perennials while also increasing water. Bougainvillea plants will often perform well throughout summer and into fall if fertilized once in late winter or early spring.
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When pruning any plant, it is important to start with the correct safety gear. Wear thick gardening gloves, as some Bougainvillea have sharp thorns that can cause injuries. and you can consider eye protection as well, to protect against squirts of sap or small particles getting into your eyes.
As for the actual pruning, a good sharp pair of secateurs should do the trick. These will need to be comfortable to hold so that you don’t strain your hands or get blisters, and they need to be the right size. It’s no good using tree loppers to prune small thin twigs! This being said, for a really old established tree that has very thick branches,you might need to use a pruning saw, or larger loppers.
Native to South America, Bougainvillea is a popular showy vine because of its ability to produce vivid blooms 11 months out of the year. Choose a spot that receives at least six hours of sun each day. Bougainvillea plants love the hot sun and will grow best in an area without shade. They’re drought resistant and thrive in loamy, well-drained soil. Be careful when removing the plant from the pot as the roots break easily. Water them thoroughly every three to four weeks or so, taking care not to over water. Viney varieties of Bougainvillea require an arbor or trellis for support. Plant in containers in frost-prone areas to bring inside during cold weather. Bougainvillea plants have fragile roots, and too much handling will cause them to break. Once the bougainvillea is potted, choose a spot that gives it as much direct sunlight as possible.
Bougainvillea grow best in full sun in areas getting at least five hours of sunlight daily. Indoors or in shadier spots, they won't bloom as well.
Bougainvillea is a tropical vine with beautiful flowers and evergreen leaves. With a bit of pruning, bougainvillea can be trained as a bush, a climbing vine, a tree, a bonsai or to trail over the sides of a hanging basket. Different techniques will provide different results, so know what type of look you want before you start out.
Bougainvillea can be pruned at any time of year. When in bloom, it is clear which branches are dead. In the fall, trim a container grown bougainvillea back to the edges of the container. In the spring, soft pinching will produce bushier growth.
Soft pinching consists of pinching off the soft tips of new growth. Left alone, most varieties of bougainvillea will grow long, trailing vines with no offshoots. Pinching the tips will stop growth along that line and cause the vine to branch at 2 or 3 leaf buds. This results in a bushier appearance.
Hard pinching is removing long lengths of vine or trimming entire sections of the plant. This is good for extensive shaping or removing damaged or dead sections of the plant.
A bougainvillea grown in a container should be hard pinched in the fall back to the edges of the container. This will keep the plant small enough to fit in the container for another year and give it space for the new spring growth.
A new bougainvillea should be soft pinched every few weeks to ensure a good, bushy base for the plant to grow from. If not pinched back, only a few long vines will develop and the plant will end up looking patchy and stringy.
In the spring, allow the edges of the plant to grow long vines over the side of the container, especially for hanging baskets. Soft pinch central vines to keep a balanced spread of foliage.
Soft pinch early growth to have a variety of vines to work up the trellis. Allow later growth to grow long and weave it through the trellis structure. Soft pinch from time to time to encourage branching and new ends which will bear the flowers. Flowers grow primarily on new growth in most varieties of bougainvillea.
Hard pinch branches that break free of the structure you are trying to create. Once the bougainvillea covers the entire trellis, hard pinching will be necessary yearly to keep the vines from trying to take over the rest of the wall. Bougainvillea are vigorous growers as well as vigorous bloomers.
After planting the bougainvilleas, soft pinch every few weeks to encourage thick, bushy growth. Primarily use soft pinching to direct growth for until the hedge has reached the size desired. Hard pinching will be necessary to keep the hedge in proper shape once it has filled out. Don't be surprised if you have to prune more than once a year.
What happens if your bougainvillea wonвЂ™t bloom? Sun is a critical part of the equation. The more sun your vine gets, the more blooms it will put out. Without some direct sun, it just wonвЂ™t flower.
Water is another key factor. Bougainvillea is native to arid climates, so check that your irrigation system isnвЂ™t applying more water than the plant needs.
If youвЂ™re pruning too often, you could be cutting off new blooms as well. Finally, go easy on the fertilizer. Too much nitrogen will encourage your plant to produce leaves instead of blooms.
So try neglecting your bougainvillea instead of babying it. You should be rewarded with beautiful blooms!