Bougainvillea is not your typical houseplant—in its natural state, it's a sprawling climber and shrub with formidable thorns, often found on the exterior of buildings (like climbing up a trellis or over a fence) or in gardens in subtropical-to-tropical climates. Native to South America, bougainvillea was named in honor of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a sailor and explorer during the late 1700s. Best planted in the spring, bougainvillea is a quick grower, often adding more than 36 inches in length per year. It's known for its green foliage and vibrant pink, purple, and orange hues that most people assume are the plant's flowers—however, they're actually petal-like bracts that hide bougainvillea's true blooms, which are typically small white or yellow buds.
If you don't live in a warm enough climate to successfully grow bougainvillea outdoors year-round, you're in luck—the shrub is surprisingly easy to grow indoors in containers or pots and can thrive if the right conditions are maintained.
|Common name||Bougainvillea, lesser bougainvillea, paper flower|
|Plant type||Perennial shrub|
|Mature size||15–40 ft. tall, 15–40 ft. wide (outdoors); 2–6 ft. tall, 1–3 ft. wide (indoors)|
|Sun exposure||Full sun|
|Soil type||Moist but well-drained|
|Bloom time||Spring, summer, fall|
|Flower color||Pink, purple, red, yellow|
|Hardiness zones||9–11 (USDA)|
|Native area||South America|
|Toxicity||Mildly toxic to pets|
Despite its showy nature, bougainvillea is not a particularly high-maintenance plant. The vine-y shrub typically blooms three times a year once established, often going dormant and losing its leaves, bracts, and flowers during the cooler winter months. It prospers best in tropical or semi-tropical environments, and will therefore require lots of water and sunlight whether planted indoors or outdoors.
Bougainvillea needs to be trimmed to maintain its shape, but too much aggressive pruning of new growth will reduce bloom color. The best approach is to prune in the fall after the growing season is complete so the plant will bloom from next season’s new growth.
Watch Now: How to Grow a Bougainvillea Indoors
Bougainvillea plants are lovers of sunlight and need full daily exposure in order to thrive. Because of this, many growers choose to move their potted bougainvillea outdoors during the summer months in order to ensure it gets enough rays. During the winter months (or if choosing to keep your plant indoors full-time), opt for a sunny spot near a big window and consider rotating your plant throughout the house as the day progresses to get it enough light. Another important note: The color saturation of your bougainvillea relates to how much sunlight it gets—more light equals brighter hues.
When it comes to soil, bougainvillea plants thrive in a moist but well-drained potting mix that's slightly acidic (between a 5.5 and 6.0 pH level). Top your mixture with compost to ensure a rich, nutritious soil, and opt for a pot with at least one drainage hole in the base to lower the risk of root rot.
Keep your plant evenly moist during the spring, summer, and fall months, and nearly dry in winter (bougainvillea blooms better with drier winter conditions). Water your bougainvillea to saturation, then let the first inch or so of soil dry out before watering again. Too much water can lead to overly-green growth and eventually root rot; too little, and the plant can wilt.
Temperature and Humidity
Bougainvillea is a relatively hardy plant, able to withstand a range of temperatures, from tropical highs of 80 degrees Fahrenheit and above, all the way down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That being said, for your bougainvillea to truly thrive indoors, maintain temperatures around 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to its tropical origins, humidity is helpful, too—spritzing the plant with water isn't necessary, but if your home is particularly dry a small humidifier near your bougainvillea can help.
Bougainvillea requires a lot of nutrition to produce blooms throughout the season, especially indoors (where almost all plants are less likely to bloom as frequently). For the best chance at a successfully full plant, feed your bougainvillea every seven to ten days using a weak liquid fertilizer. There are several fertilizer blends specifically geared toward bougainvillea on the market, but one formulated for other tropical plants, like hibiscus, can work too.
Is Bougainvillea Toxic?
While not dangerously toxic, the sap of bougainvillea is known to cause a mild reaction in both pets and children if ingested in large enough quantities. In addition, the plant possesses sharp thorns throughout its shrubbery, which can cause scratches or skin irritation.
Symptoms of Poisoning
- If your child or pet has ingested the sap of bougainvillea and is experiencing any nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, contact a doctor immediately.
- If any person or pet comes in contact with the thorns bougainvillea and experiences painful itching, stinging, or burning skin, or notices any blisters or sores, contact a doctor immediately.
Potting & Repotting
When choosing a vessel to plant your bougainvillea in, always opt for a larger size than you think you need. Bougainvillea spreads rapidly and, in suitable environments, will quickly grow into small trees or large shrubs several feet high. To keep things manageable in containers, control the plant's growth with yearly repotting and root pruning in the spring. Once the plant is large enough, aim to repot it every two years.
Common Pests & Diseases
Outdoors, bougainvillea can experience a few pests, most notably bougainvillea looper caterpillar, which feeds on the leaves of the plant. However, when indoors, you may want to keep an eye out for mealybugs, a common indoor pest. Mealybugs appear most often on the stems and leaves of a plant, identifiable by the fuzzy, white mass they create as they group together. Mealybugs feed off of new growth, eventually damaging the leaves and causing them to yellow and die. To rid your bougainvillea of mealybugs, treat it with neem oil weekly until they've died off.