Forgive me if you remember reading about these before, but those new to gardening might be interested, as they can be seen in gardens everywhere – great colourful bushes, languidly growing over walls or framing archways with a riot of colour. They are good for growing in Portugal as they can handle the heat pretty well, but are not frost tolerant and will need protection if the air temperature gets below 4C. I am a big fan of bougainvillea as they not only thrive in the heat but survive too.

Bougainvillea is a genus of thorny ornamental vines, bushes, and trees. The blooms themselves are small and white, and it’s the colourful papery bracts or modified leaves, which can be seen in all shades of pink, peach, purple, and red that attract attention.


Is bougainvillea a flower or thorn? Bougainvillea is a thorny plant that make great hedges for security purposes. The spines are located at the base of each leaf of the plant, are sharp and will easily puncture, or pierce bare skin. I remember waiting for my daughter outside her school with my small son in tow who was getting bored, and he began standing on his head - as boys do - unfortunately we were next to someone’s freshly trimmed bougainvillea hedge, and he managed to get one embedded in his head, which subsequently entailed a trip to A&E to remove it, so I can testify that the thorns are long and sharp.

Some are bushes, some are climbers, and come in shades of white, pink or purple, even peach, but there are one or two that are orange or yellow which I think I will hunt down and purchase next, just to add another colour to my garden.


What is the origin of the bougainvillea? They are native to tropical South America, and is a Nyctaginaceae shrub or vine plant with 18 known species of foundation stock. It was first discovered by the French botanist Philibert Commerson in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the 1760s and he named it after his friend sailor Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who apparently was the commander of an expedition that circumnavigated the globe in 1766-69.

Credits: Unsplash; Author: @visualsbysaf;


But looking after them is tricky until they are well established. They don’t like wet feet, so water thoroughly and then allow the plant to almost dry out before watering again. In autumn, reduce the watering as growth slows. Start feeding them once a week with an all-purpose fertilizer from mid spring until mid-autumn. Bougainvilleas can take full sun and heat without skipping a beat, but they're big babies with sensitive roots that don’t appreciate being messed with, so leave your bougainvillea in the grow pot when planting it, as they don’t take kindly to being moved. Once planted they are best left in situ for several years, and just for your interest, they have a life-span of around 50 years or more.

As far as trimming goes, cut down last year's leaves and shoots in early spring so the bougainvillea can continue to branch. Make sure not to cut away the entire branches, and always leave a third of the length. The colourful flowers of this exotic looker always grow on the new shoots of the plant, so the first pruning is especially important.

It is believed to have anticancer, antihepatotoxic, anti-inflammatory, antihyperlipidemic, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and antiulcer properties. Bougainvillea spectabilis contains pinitol, which has an insulin-like effect and has the potential for development as a treatment for diabetes. But I wouldn’t advise trying to find out yourself!

In the language of flowers, they stands for passion, and to the Victorians, a gift of bougainvillea was meant to ignite passion! In other parts of the world, bougainvillea flowers stand for welcoming visitors, peace, and free trade.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan