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Gardening: All about bougainvillea

Eileen Ward
Columnist
Bougainvillea does well in any soil type. It blooms best in full sun and when on the dry side.

When the bougainvillea is in bloom everyone wants to know: What are the beautiful flowering plants all over the island?

This plant is without a doubt one of our most bright and colorful tropical plants. While they will flower somewhat all year, the height of the flowering season is now through late spring. The flowering will slow dramatically when the rainy weather begins in June.

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If you decide to include it into your landscape, be prepared to suffer unsightly bougainvillea in December and January due to the cold weather. Unfortunately, a lot of bougainvillea were hit by a cold and windy front in December this year and are just now beginning to bring forth new leaves. It is best to leave them alone to recover rather than cutting them back.

They are big thorny plants with a dense, spreading habit of growth. Its common height is 10' to 12' but the bougainvillea can sometimes reach 40' to 50' in height. The dwarf variety will reach only 3' to 4' in height. If you are not careful when pruning this shrub, you will carry the scars for life.

The bright flowers make the hard work of caring for the plant worthwhile. It is the bract surrounding the flower that furnishes the brilliant color. Colors range from red to white, peach, purple or crimson. Afterglow comes in varying shades of yellow, orange and salmon. It is especially striking when many colors are planted together in a group planting.

Bougainvillea does well in any soil type. It blooms best in full sun and when on the dry side. It is a very drought tolerant plant. It can be killed to the ground during a freeze but will usually regrow with the onset of warmer weather.

Bougainvillea is an aggressive grower with a naturally informal character. It is lovely beyond compare when allowed to scramble over an arbor or a wall. It can withstand heavy trimming, but it does flower on new growth and blooming may be slowed when pruned in hedge form. Try to plant it where the sides can be allowed to grow and weep while keeping the top at the preferred height for the best of both worlds. The best choices for a hedge are the Elizabeth Angus or New River variety.

The most persistent and damaging pest of the bougainvillea is the bougainvillea caterpillar. This pest is also very active right now and is eating the new leaves of the damaged bougainvillea as fast as the plant can put them out. It is about one inch long and is green in color. It eats the leaves giving the plant a tattered look. If the leaves are tattered treat right away since the plant will decline rather than recover from the cold damage. When you touch the plant, the caterpillars drop unobserved to the ground leaving most people wondering what is eating their bougainvillea plants. The brown moth which lays the eggs from which the caterpillars develop is about 1 1/4 inches in length. The moth is busy laying eggs during the warmer months. Chemical controls include Thuricide, Dipel, or Sevin. Dipel and Thuricide are a more natural control using bacillus thuringiensis, which will control only caterpillars and will not harm the beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps.

Following are some varieties and their colors:

Barbara Karst (red); California Gold (gold); Elizabeth Angus (large purple); Helen Johnson (dwarf red); James Walker (magenta pink); Miami Pink (pink); Ms. Alice (white); New River (medium purple); Pink Pixie (dwarf pink); Raspberry Ice (red); Rosenka (gold/pink); Silhouette (light purple); Sundown Orange (orange); Surprise (single pink); Viki (pink and white).

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Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at Gswdmarco@comcast.net or 239-394-1413.