Bougainvillea's color-changing bracts a mystery - Albuquerque Journal

Bougainvillea’s color-changing bracts a mystery

Tracey FitzgibbonQ. I have a bougainvillea that was pink. When I brought it in for the winter, the blooms turned white. Why is this and will it turn back to pink when I put it outdoors for the summer? Also, will it lose all of its leaves this winter? – K.M., Albuquerque

A. When I first read your questions I thought that perhaps you are lucky enough to have two separate varieties of bougainvillea growing in one pot, one a pink bloomer and the other white.

Then I re-read the question and am now wondering about the blooms that turned white. Was the bougainvillea in bloom when you brought it in for the winter? And if so, was it those pink blooms that faded to white, all the while still hanging on, with the change from outdoors to indoors?

If that’s the case, I believe the blooms just faded, especially since being indoors they weren’t getting as much light, weren’t being buffeted by breezes to get exercise, and certainly the watering offered changed once the plant was brought in for the winter months.

A happy, healthy bougainvillea needs gobs of light and quite a bit of heat to bloom. If it bloomed for you anew with white blooms after having come inside, then I’m at a loss to explain the bloom color change.

Everything I’ve read and know about bougainvilleas says to fertilize in the spring and again in mid-summer.

If the plant is using a lot of water, I would recommend drying it off a bit. Perhaps the plant is being kept too damp and it’s the overabundance of water causing the washed-out color of the blooms. Certainly, don’t go from being kept consistently damp to bone Sahara dry, but ease up a bit if the plant is being kept really well-watered while it’s still indoors.

The “blooms” of a bougainvillea aren’t the colorful leaves; those are called bracts. If you look closely at a bougainvillea in bloom, you’ll see clusters of wee white trumpet-shaped tubes that are surrounded by the colored bracts. Think of a poinsettia, those bright yellow puff-balls that are clustered in the center of all the colored leaves – which are actually bracts – well that’s how a bougainvillea blooms too. All those colorful bracts (leaves) are made to act as a runway or guiding light to better attract pollinators so they find the flower – those smallish, long, usually white trumpet-shaped things – easier.

Next, has the bougainvillea lost all its leaves? If so, are the limbs and branches still pliable? If they are pliable, then the plant should still be alive. Be sure it’s not a matter of being overwatered that has caused all the leaves to fall off.

As soon as the weather allows, and I doubt that will be before the end of April at the earliest, put the plant back out in bright indirect light until it pops new leaves for you. As soon as it sets leaves again, then offer the first fertilization of the season. Apply a blooming plant food, one that offers more phosphorus in its mix, to give the plant what it wants in order to grow healthy, colorful bracts and blooms.

Also, once the plant has woken back up for the growing season, it’ll probably enjoy a trim. Don’t be shy, just wait until it has started growing new leaves.

Also, I need you to beware, bougainvillea detest being re-potted. They have a root system that does not like to be disturbed. So if you need to repot, you’ll want to be remarkably considerate of the process. Remember that most plants do not like moving from a snug house to a 16-room mansion.

Let’s say yours lives in a 10-inch hanging pot. Would you want to move it to a large 16 inch one? No, the roots will get lost and struggle for weeks and weeks trying to hold on. Moving up by no more than 2 inch increments is usually best.

Make sure the soil surrounding the roots is dampened before you take it out of its old pot so the soil won’t crumble away when being reseated into a new pot. Again, aim to not disturb the roots much at all, remembering to not bury the plant deeper than in its original pot. You goal is to have the fresher soil at the bottom of the pot and then tamp soil around the existing dirt/root mass .

If you chose to keep the plant in the same pot, then you will still want to work with dampened soil and remember to be terrifically gentle as you remove just barely enough of the old soil. You don’t want to knock off all the old soil surrounding the roots; just enough so you can offer a wee bit of fresh soil. The roots more than likely quit working if you are too vigorous and then the plant would fail. So, please be gentle if you need to repot.

I have no clue as to why your pink bougainvillea turned white and I am keeping my fingers crossed that when it gets back outside and has gobs more light and a fertilization, it’ll show off with the pink blooms again for you. Happy Diggin’ In.

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to


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