Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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Click the image to see a more detailed photo


Click the image to see a more detailed photo



Bougainvillea is a beast of a plant. Its a thorny, rampant, sprawling bully of a bush with ambitions to be a vine. And like most bullies it doesn’t cling daintily to its victims, it leans on them. Then in case you don’t get the message, if you get up close and personal with a Bougainvillea it rips your clothes and skin. Nice.
But despite all this, Bougainvillea is undeniably gorgeous. It puts on a spectacular display of vibrant colour for many months of the year. Its one of those tropical plants whose very presence in a garden can transform it into an oasis of tropical glamour.
Very often you see Bougainvillea in Northland gardens that are huge tangles of thick spiky stems with very few flowers, and to make it worse, the more you cut them down to size, the faster and bigger they grow and the less they flower. Our climate is wetter and cooler than Bougainvillea’s rocky, arid Brazilian home, so it grows much faster and lusher here in our rich, moist soils and it flowers less.
I’m a slow learner it seems because only recently have I realised what every tropical gardener seems to know: Bougainvillea are the perfect container plant.
In a big pot their roots are restrained, warm and dry(ish) and they become a bush, not a vine. In fact they can be grown as a spectacular standard like this and they’ll flower almost constantly all year long. I suspect that this is a stress reaction due to the restricted roots, but much better to stress the Bougainvillea than the gardener!
Bougainvillea was named after the French explorer, soldier and friend of Napoleon, Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville who was the first French sea captain to cross the Pacific Ocean in about 1768, the same Capitaine Bougainville whose name is part of our city’s theatre complex. He brought the first Bougainvillea plants from Brazil to Europe where they created a sensation in the conservatories of the aristocracy.
Bougainvillea is related to our native parapara, the bird-catching plant from Northland’s East coast islands. If you compare the two, their flowers are very similar. Remember of course that the flower of Bougainvillea is an insignificant white tubular affair half-buried amidst the brilliantly coloured papery bracts we think of as the flowers.
The flower bracts of wild plants are red or magenta but all the modern varieties have been created by hybridising several Bougainvillea species to produce bracts in many colours from purple, lavender and pink to orange, yellow and white. There are dwarf bushy types and some with double flowers and some that produce white and magenta flowers on the same plant.
I notice that flower colour in our cooler climate is more intense than on the same variety in the tropics, and this interesting quirk is confirmed by growing Scarlet O’Hara in the hothouse here where its flowers are more pink than scarlet.
Bougainvillea grown in tubs on the patio in full sun, or in hanging baskets, will need to be fed little and often with rose fertiliser throughout the warm weather. Maintain them in the desired shape by continually shortening any longer shoots to about 150mm to maximise flowering. Repot into fresh potting mix and trim the roots back every Spring.
Remember that Bougainvilleas will respond just like people to hardship.. they bloom. A little stress now and then is character-building.
Tough-minded (successful) gardeners will say “Treat’em mean and keep’em keen”.

(Text and photography copyright Russell Fransham 2005)