My Giddy Bougainvillea Experience

The signature flower of Southern California explodes with color this month.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles, this Midwestern transplant nearly keeled over from the neon bougainvillea cascading in the alleyways. Compared to the crushed glass, black ice and cigarette butts in Chicago’s alleys, this locale seemed like paradise found.

From my sun-baked stretch of the Valley, I drove to the house of a guy I was dating who lived in Laurel Canyon. Past the hole in the wall where I got chips and salsa, past the undeveloped stretch of Tujunga, I was, as much as one could be without crashing the yellow Fiat into the hills, transported by magenta and pink bougainvillea poking out over terraces like giddy French whores welcoming the Allies.

Yes, yes it was long ago. But I live in Laurel Canyon now and those bougainvillea are unabashedly shaking their booty in the June breeze...even as I’m in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the Honda waiting what seems to be the shelf life of a AA battery to turn left at Laurel Terrace.

Bougainvillea was discovered in 1768 by French naturalist Dr. Philibert Commerçon, who named the woody, tropical desert vine to honor his traveling friend and ship’s admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville after their arrival in Rio de Janeiro.

Natives of Brazil, Bougainvillea has developed into modern-day hybrids of spectabilis (B. Brasiliensis) and B. glabra and are among the most beautiful, easy-to-care for vines. They belong to the Nyctaginaceae (Four-O'Clock) family. With proper sun exposure and good drainage, they have the added perk of remaining evergreen. Perfectly suited to our Mediterranean, prone-to-drought conditions these vines are normally climbers on thick woody stems, but can be mounded in pots and hanging baskets or create swags over rooftops. Some gardeners even treat them as bonsai specimens. Bougainvillea flower several times throughout the year, but their color comes not from its unshowy tiny white flowers, but from three large paper-thin bracts that surround each tubular bloom.

So for a smackdown of the many shapes and colors, we suggest a walk down Cantura Street. With thorns and without, in California gold, lilac, orange, pink, purple, red and white; fighting their way off trellises; winding in and out of iron gates, trimmed neatly as shrubs, and framing hacienda windows, bougainvillea are putting out a spectacular display.


To keep the bougainvillea vine in bloom, keep all long shoots cut back to 18"-20".

Good news for Valley residents, these plants flower best under stress. So dry is good and so is a little root-bound action.

A 1-gallon pot of Bougainvillea from a nursery can stay in that same pot for three or more years. Use a trellis for support. To re-pot, you will not find the usual tangle of roots, so respect the plant’s fragile root-to-stem connection.


You may not think to put a bougainvillea in a pot or hanging basket, but try it. 12” diameter is preferable with at least a half day of full sun. And don’t let it sit in standing water.

Yvette Kaplan June 15, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Thank you for a great article and the smile of reminiscense! I too was floored when I moved here from a life in NYC. I had never seen such colors before! Between the abundant bouganvillea, and my number one love-- the jacarandas!--I was sure I must be dreaming... Purple trees?? This New Yorker loved LA from first glance.
Marla Hart July 20, 2012 at 07:06 PM
Yvette, yes... it's an embarrassment of riches, this L.A. Now if only we can get rid of the cars!
Miki Henderson February 05, 2013 at 06:50 PM


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