Phil DudmanHow to grow bougainvillea

The mere mention of ‘bougainvillea’ can send many gardeners into an immediate state of panic. And fair enough to… I’ve had my fair share of bad experiences and lacerations in dealing with them, mainly in a past life as professional gardening contractor where I’ve been asked to tame yet another bougie gone wild. But it doesn’t have to be this way, because with regular light pruning and training, it’s quite easy to maintain a bougainvillea to the size and shape you want, and when you do you’ll be rewarded with a most colourful and hardy performer.

Bougainvillea grown as a hedge

Bougainvillea grown as a hedge

It’s not one for lazy gardeners, that’s for sure. Ignore it and it will soon become a big problem. The normal pruning required is not a lot of work – if you are the type who is prepared to trim a hedge or prune a few roses on a regular basis, then you’ve got what it takes to properly care for a bougainvillea.

Bougainvillea thorns help them climb

Bougainvillea thorns help them climb

The key to training and pruning them is to understand their growth habit. Bougainvilleas are programmed to climb; that’s why they produce such thick stems with large thorns that are designed to hook into things as they reach towards the light. Once they get there, they start to produce much shorter, less menacing growth on which their flowers and colourful bracts are formed.

If you do nothing, they will continue to grow and flower beautifully; however, eventually they may end up a rampant overgrown mess, forcing you to make the inevitable decision to cut them back hard. This is the big mistake.


Hard pruning normally results in an eruption of, long, wild, thick, thorny and vigorous shoots as the plant aims to once again reach for the light and re-establish its framework. The better approach – once you’ve trained established your climber to the size and shape you want – is to just keep clipping the tips of the shorter bushier growth straight after each flush of blooms has finished. These lighter cuts respond with more of the shorter compact growth we want on which a gorgeous succession of blooms will form.

Orange bougainvillea - flowers develop on short, well-managed growth

Orange bougainvillea – flowers develop on short, compact growth

Gnarled old bougainvillea

Gnarled old bougainvillea



I’ve seen this technique applied successfully time and time again where bougainvillea has been trained as a colourful hedge, topiary or as a hardy compact potted display. The most impressive is this gnarly specimen (pictured) I spotted in Lismore northern New South Wales that has been beautifully maintained and flowering almost continuously for over 80 years.


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26 thoughts on “How to grow bougainvillea

  1. A great piece on Bougs! My very first bougainvillea at our last house was a cutting my husband brought home from work some 30 yrs ago, it ended up covering a lengthy brick wall and looked stunning. We have trained a bougainvillea that we grew from a cutting, over an arched piece of concrete reinforcing mesh in our new garden. In less than a year we have achieved the domed shape we envisaged. I love giving it haircuts and it has rewarded us with beautiful blooms. I have now graduated onto the Bambinos, much less agressive but still stunning and such a welcome addition to our garden. They look brilliant in pots.

  2. Lovely, Phil and you have just reminded me to prune my wildly growing variegated apricot specimen ….. it is the only one I let get to any height. The others are pruned strictly and also in pots , where they thrive and flower abundantly ….. they are such a rich and invigorating addition to the garden, but I have many a battle scar from close encounters with them over the years. I stood on a bougy branch, cut and left lying on the ground and got a poison foot for my pains some time ago. Could not walk on it for a week. Ouch.

  3. Hi Phil and thanks for the helpful information. I thought you might be able to help with another boug question – how much water do they need? Some people say very little but I’ve just returned from a trip to Broome in the wet season and the bougs up there (which are getting quite an abundance of water at the moment) look magnificent. My Temple Fire which is described as dwarf compact variety and is in a large pot seems to swing from yellow leaves (too much water?), to looking like it needs a drink – I’m having trouble getting the balance right. Any help appreciated.

  4. I have a bogie that has grown out of hand and I do need to give it a hard prune – any ideas on how to do that successfully? I also have one in the front garden and my husband (who hates them) did a big chop (behind my back) and now I have all these long skinny things shooting up. The one I am going to intentionally prune I want to have some advice on so it doesn’t look stupid and “stick-y” like the one that was massacred. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Hi Diana, without seeing it, I would say go for it and prune it hard. It will fight back with lots of shoots as you’ve experienced with the second example. I would then thin these out asap by breaking them off at the main branch when quite small and select one or two that you can allow to grow and train as your main stems and prune regularly as recommended in the blog. All the best! Phil

    • Hi Judy – usually they’d need USDA Zone 9 or warmer but you could try one in Zone 8 if you were growing it against a masonry wall that got some winter sun and you kept the roots well-mulched.

      • In india we have audent sun. I need advise on good bunch of flowering, shaping of plant, and what feed should we give.
        Another question – Coleus plant do we need to spray milk for better color of leaves? what care for good foliage?

        • Hi – India is a big country with many climate differences from north to south and also elevation and you don’t say whether you’re growing your plant in the garden or in a pot. The most important thing for flowers on a climbing bougainvillea is to allow some of the branches to be horizontal as this is where you will see flowers develop.

  5. I buy a Bougie every year and it dies from “cold” I guess? I’m in zone 7 which is East Tennessee…….can Bougies be grown as perennials?…….or, are they always an annual in my zone 7?

    • Hello Laura

      with winter temperatures down to 0-5F (minus 15C), frost tender Bougainvilleas are not going to survive a winter outside in your garden. This is why the plants are most frequently seen in Southern California, around the gulf and in Florida.

      However, if you would like to enjoy these beautiful plants in your garden, you can grow them in pots and bring them inside before there is any risk of frost damage. You may have a bright sunny room that is heated in winter and your plant or plants can grace the house while its cold outside.

      Many nurseries will look after your plants over the winter months in heated greenhouses for a small fee. Each year they will return them to the garden when the weather is suitable and pick them up as the weather cools.

      Another option is to buy plants each year and enjoy them over the warmer months and replace them the following year.

      Arno King

    • Hi Donna – yes bougainvillea is a stunning plant, although more of a large shrub or vigorous climber rather than a tree. Unfortunately because it’s a tropical plant, your Pennsylvania winters would kill it stone dead…unless you could keep it inside in a warm, humid environment!

  6. Thanks so much I have 3 in pots because I thought they would die in winter. Will they make it if mulched heavily? I’m in Oklahoma.

  7. Hi! I got my very first pair of bougainvillea. One that is shaped as a tree and one that was in a hanging basket. I potted both. It has been raining a lot here and they literally lost all of their beautiful leaves. Any recommendations? I read bougain is a good fertilizer? Should i do that and if so, how often? Thank you!

  8. Hi! In the summer of 2016 I bought two bougainvilleas planted in fairly large pots that I planned on training over a garden arch. I live in Houston, Texas on the Southern side so zone 9, I believe. Houston hasn’t had a freeze in almost 7 years and of course, in January of 2017 we had one. Temps dropped to the mid 20s and the pots were too heavy to bring inside. I was certain they were goners. But amazingly, in late spring, new growth started to appear out of the ball just above the soil. It has since been growing like a wild thing and has now almost covered the arch. But no flowers! I’m going to cut back on the watering and let the leaves wilt a bit and see what that does. It has been prolifically producing leaves that are HUGE and I was told to pinch those off when there was a little bud starting between the leaf and the thorn. I’ve given it Hibiscus fertilizer once in July but still no signs of flowers. After reading this article, I will go back and prune out some of the suckers that appear near the base. Is there anything else I should do?

  9. Hi Phil
    I am trying to grow these on the south side of a fence in Newcastle Australia
    hoping that they will grow up to the full sun and be a thick natural barbed wire to deter foxes from jumping my colourbond fence to get my chickens.

    however they haven’t grown much at all (only about 45cm tall) in a year.
    I’m pretty sure its because they cant get to the full sun that they love.

    should i pot them with a trellace and position in full sun, then wait and then replant them near the fence when they are the full height to reach the sun?

  10. Good day Phil,
    With some preparation installed a trellis that would provide support for the climbing plants along the perimeter wall of my garden.
    To my delight the most prolific and boundless Bougainvillea has grown however only leafy and sans bracts. Purchased without any identification as to its colour, I was taken aback by this specimen with its robust growth and habit.
    To date I am noticing that the showy large leaves display a pinkish hue.
    The plant has been in my garden for the past year.
    My garden here in sunny South Africa facing North West enjoys sunny conditions for the major part of the day.
    Could you throw some light onto to why she has not flowered as the soil requirements look optimal and all conditions have been met with.
    With guesswork and before the bracts do eventually appear, I am leaning towards the pink variety with the velvety display of her leaves.
    Loowing forward to your reply,
    Kind Regards,
    Margaret Joy Gordon

  11. Hi Phil, I have moved to a house that has 3 bogan, thickets. 2 of them have massive tree trunks hidden in there and I would like to cut out the thicket and display them as a standard, so to speak. Any thoughts on how to do this ( in armour) so they don’t throw too many water shoots?
    Yolande ( Qld Australia)

  12. Hi Yolande, sounds like you will have to cut it back hard in order to achieve this – and yes, leather gloves, eye protection and heavy clothing to cover exposed skin are a must – take your time and be careful. Lots of new shoots are likely to appear as a result of the heavy pruning and they will be programmed to grow long and whippy. I think the best approach is to try and contain their enthusiasm by regularly pinching out the soft central growth. This will encourage dense branching and, hopefully, lots of shorter flowering stems. All the best, Phil

  13. I bought a potted Bougainvillea and wanted to plant it next to my fence, it’s a wooden fence with chicken wire in the open parts. I’m trying to get the effect of a hedge along my whole fence, can this be done with training or?? Thanks in advance!

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