“From the verdant mountainsides of South America comes a flavorful refreshing plant.” Sounds like the lead in for a coffee advertisement, right? Nope, we’re talking about the tropical vine, Bougainvillea.
French botanist Philibert Commerson gave the plant its name in honor of Louis de Bougainville, the first French explorer to cross the Pacific. This botanist sailed with de Bougainville in 1768 from France to Tahiti. Bougainville discovered the plant in Brazil in 1790 and brought it to Europe where it became both widespread and popular. Despite being a vine, bougainvillea as bonsai now has a worldwide following.
Bougies don’t need much water or fertilizer, but as a vine, they do require lots of trimming. Normally grown for their colorful bracts, with time and care they can look attractive even without the bracts. Bougainvillea’s viny growth habit means a couple of compromises from the usual bonsai rules. If you want to make one look like an azalea, you need to prune, prune, and prune. Usually, the top of the tree can remain a little bushy creating a nice dome of colorful bracts.
Bougy wood is soft and if not treated will rot rather quickly. One can use this tendency to develop features that add age. Treating bougy cuts with lime sulfur will extend the duration of the dead branches and scars (jin and shari ) considerably. Miniwax wood hardener also works to extend the life of the wood. (BTW, this is a controversial topic in Florida bonsai circles.)
The plant prefers full sun and a well-drained potting mix. Actively growing bougainvilleas like moist soil but should be kept drier in winter. Drier conditions seem to encourage flowers. Fertilizer recommendations vary, but any houseplant fertilizer, used according to label directions, should give good results. Use less fertilizer during the winter. Ideal temperatures are 70 to 80 degrees during the day and 60 to 65 degrees at night. The varieties with purple bracts have decent growth patterns for bonsai. Pink Pixie has the smallest leaves and bracts.
Propagating bougies is easy. Cuttings root readily. Place them in pure pearlite, pumice or even, egads, Turface, and give a little water and roots will form. Stumps or logs that people have forcibly removed from their property can make nice bonsai. The thicker the stump, the easier it is to root, although everything seems to root. A favorite bougy collecting time is right after a hurricane has been through town. Lots of raw material is available then.