This spring was perhaps one of the best seasons for the vivid and plentiful color produced by the various bougainvillea cultivars in our local area. They do like it hot and dry and that is certainly what they got this year. Bougainvillea is a genus of thorny ornamental vines, bushes, and trees with flower-like spring leaves near its flowers. They are native to West Africa and South America from Brazil to Peru and south to Argentina. This vine species grows anywhere from 3 to 40 feet tall, and its nature is to scramble and climb over other plants with their spiky thorns. They are evergreen where rainfall occurs all year, or deciduous if there is a dry season. The actual flower of the plant is small and generally white, but each cluster of three flowers is surrounded by three or six bracts with the bright colors associated with the plant, including pink, magenta, purple, red, orange, white or yellow, and are thin with a papery texture.
Bougainvillea varieties have different growth rates and they tend to flower all year round in equatorial regions. In places farther from the equator they are more seasonal and have bloom cycles from four to six weeks. Bougainvillea grow best in dry soil, in very bright full sun and with frequent fertilization; but they require little water once established, and in fact will not flourish if over-watered. Remember they like it hot and dry. Once the rainy season is upon us, the colorful bracts will be fewer in number. In the landscape, its drought tolerance makes it ideal for warm climates year-round. It can be pruned into a standard tree shape, but can also be grown along fence lines, on walls, in containers and hanging baskets, and as a hedge or an accent plant.
Many of today's bougainvillea are the result of interbreeding among only three out of the eighteen South American species recognized by botanists. Currently, there are over 300 varieties of bougainvillea around the world. In our little corner of the world, the cultivar 'Helen Johnson' was developed by local plant grower, James Hendry, owner of the Everglades Nursery which is no longer in existence. He developed this lovely deep fuchsia pink, thornless variety to honor his long-time employee and future daughter-in-law, Helen Johnson. He said he named it after her because "she had no thorns." Helen married Mr. Hendry's son, Jim Hendry, and helped develop the Everglades Nursery and became a well-known horticulturist and landscape architect in our area.
If you are looking for lots of vibrant color in your landscape, Bougainvillea may be just the thing for your island garden. This column is a joint effort by all at In The Garden, a Sanibel garden center, located at 3889 Sanibel Captiva Road, Sanibel, Florida.