The trouble with spending winters in sub-tropical and tropical locations is that gardeners like me quickly develop the desire to grow in our own gardens all those wonderful tropical plants that grow so profusely in much warmer areas of the world.
It seems that we gardeners always want to have what is just out of our grasp.
While we were in Arizona this winter, I was enthralled by the glorious displays of bougainvillea and, of course, I began to think how I could include one of these plants in my gardening plans at home in Manitoba.
I remembered seeing bougainvilleas in some Manitoba gardens in the past and I also remembered seeing a few offered for sale in Manitoba garden centres; perhaps it will be possible to have a bougainvillea in my own garden.
Bougainvilleas are tropical plants that originate in Brazil. They are showy, very floriferous plants that put on wonderful displays of vivid colour.
In warmer climes where they are grown outdoors, bougainvilleas are grown as hedges, standards and trees, as well as being used to cover walls and fences. They are also used in hanging baskets and large containers and this would be the obvious way to use a bougainvillea in our area.
The plants are pest-free and disease-resistant, so although they are tropical plants, they are tough and resilient and do not require a lot of pampering. In fact, they are drought-tolerant as well, so they won’t suffer adversely if the soil in which they are planted dries out.
Bougainvilleas are very sensitive to frost — during the winter of 2013, the tops of the bougainvilleas froze in the Phoenix area during an unusually cool spell, and the display of colour ended for that season. The plants were not killed, but the blooms were lost.
The plants produce small heart-shaped green leaves — unless it is a variegated hybrid — and the flowers are not really flowers at all, but colourful bracts. The bracts can be white, pink, red, orange, purple, or burgundy, and some newer hybrids have double bracts and variegated foliage.
I hope to find a potted bougainvillea in a garden centre to add to my outdoor garden this year. I will probably re-pot it into a hanging basket or 12-inch pot, using a well-drained soil that is not too heavily peat-based.
Bougainvilleas have very fine root systems that are not tolerant of poor drainage, so whether I use a hanging basket or another container, I will ensure that the planting medium drains well and that the container does not sit in water.
I will not over-pot the plant as bougainvilleas perform best when pot bound — a bougainvillea can be left in the same pot for several years, which is another way that it is an easy-care plant.
Bougainvilleas are heavy feeders and should be fertilized regularly. Using a fertilizer containing too much nitrogen will create more foliage and less bloom, so the fertilizer must be selected carefully.
A bougainvillea represents a fair investment so many a gardener will want to keep the plant over winter to use the following year. The plant must be moved indoors before frost occurs; it will not survive our fall frosts.
There are two options to over-wintering a bougainvillea.
The first is to allow the plant to become dormant by withholding water and light.
The plant will defoliate and the potted plant can then be stored in a dimly lit, cool location for the winter but it will need to be watered a couple of times to prevent the fine roots from drying out completely. Bring the plant out of storage and encourage it into growth in March.
The second option is to use the plant as a houseplant during the winter. The bougainvillea should be located in front of a south window to give it as much light as possible.
Bougainvilleas require a lot of direct sun to bloom — a very minimum of five hours a day of intense sunlight. Given that requirement, it is unlikely that a bougainvillea will bloom indoors in our area; it will simply be a green plant going through a vegetative cycle. It will be induced into a bloom cycle when it gets enough light — perhaps only after being placed outdoors.
It might be a good idea to do some heavy trimming and pruning of the plant when it is brought indoors for the winter — particularly if it is going to be kept in active growth. The thorny, arching branches can be cut back and this pruning will induce branching and the end result will be a bushier, more attractive plant.
If you are coveting the tropical plants grown by your winter neighbours when you are south, consider getting a bougainvillea.
If you can offer the plant lots of heat and direct sun in your summer garden, you will be rewarded with a splash of vibrant colour that will make your outdoor garden come alive.
Albert Parsons is a consultant for garden design and landscaping who lives in Minnedosa.