A Feast of Color

Bougainvilleas Brighten the Gray Day

The overcast weather seems to be unrelenting this year. May gray has morphed seamlessly into June gloom. It’s a good thing a few plants with plenty of bright flowers are bringing some much-needed cheer to these dark days. Among the brightest and most widely planted in our area is bougainvillea. These shrubby or vine-like plants come in a fantastic array of vibrant colors from deepest red to hot pink, rosy purple to sunny gold. All the named varieties have been developed or selected from Bougainvillea spectabilis. Some of the most common are ‘Barbara Karst’ with bright red blooms, the pinkish-gold ‘Rosenka,’ and the purple flowers of the species itself. Many more are available with a little searching. A pure white cultivar called ‘White Madonna’ contrasts well with the brighter shades.

All that glorious color is actually produced in a trio of showy bracts that surround the very small, white, tubular flowers. These papery bracts each last for weeks and successive flower sprays extend the bloom season nearly year ‘round in frost-free zones. And while they are native to the tropics of South America, most can take a few degrees of frost. The vines may shrivel, but plants can re-sprout from the crown. In colder areas, plant against heat-retaining walls or adjacent to patios that can moderate the temperatures a bit. Small, shrub types can be grown in containers and moved to shelter during cold snaps.

One of the reasons the bloom is so prolific this year may be that bougainvillea produces more flowers when slightly water-stressed during their bloom period. That is certainly the case in this dry year. Plant it in light shade to full sun. Root balls may be somewhat sensitive to handling, so remove from pots with care and tamp soil gently. With appropriate training, plants can be tied to sturdy supports such as fences or trellises against walls or left to sprawl and mound along the ground. They can be especially useful on slopes that are hard to maintain and irrigate. In areas like this, once established, bougainvillea can be left to its own devices making an ugly situation a feast for the eyes.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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