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Anatomy of a Bougainvillea

By Carrie Terry ; Updated September 21, 2017
The colored leaves of a bougainvillea actually surround the true flowers.

If you've ever been to an "authentic" Mexican restaurant, you've probably seen bougainvillea draped over the walls and signs in green and flowering profusion. These thriving vines are native to Mexico and South America, feature some specific physical characteristics and have some strict growing needs.


Bougainvilleas are bushes that put out vining shoots and can quickly overwhelm any nearby structure. They feature thick, wood main stems but put out green shoots for both flowering and leaf growth. Bougainvilleas may be evergreen or semi-evergreen, and generally drop their leaves for a short winter period. They may otherwise grow and bloom year-round.


Bougainvillea only flower and thrive under the right conditions. They need the bright warmth of full sunshine every day, so grow best in open, exposed locations. The vining growth means that they require a supporting structure like a wall, trellis, tree or railing. With the right support, an outdoor bougainvillea can grow to over 40 feet tall, though indoor varieties are smaller and more controlled.


Bougainvillea "blooms" in orange, yellow, pink, red, white and purple. The petals are dry and papery, and 1 to 2 inches wide. True bougainvillea flowers are actually small white tubes inside these colorful displays, which are technically the flower bracts. Bougainvillea blooms at the end of the green shoots, so the outside of the plant is almost constantly colored with flower bracts.


Bougainvillea leaves are paper thin, and grow from the green shoots of a bougainvillea rather than woody stems. Leaves are a bright, deep green and measure 3 to 5 inches long. Leaves may or may not be hairy, and are sometimes interspersed with inch-long thorns.

Soil and Watering

Bougainvilleas are best planted in rich, loamy soil that drains quickly. If they're potted, the pot must be large enough to give them room to grow, and heavy enough to support their draping foliage. Although Aggie Horticulture maintains that bougainvillea do best if kept dry, many people have good success with weekly waterings of 1 to 2 inches of water.