Not Your Father’s Bougy

In China and Taiwan, some growers set a different design goal.  I have seen magnificent bougainvillea bonsai (or pensai the Chinese pronunciation for bonsai)  that really don’t care about the colorful bracts or flowers. These trees are designed to show off the fine branching and structure – something many bougies in the USA are lacking due to different design goals.  To develop this fine ramification, the growers use the clip and grow technique as if they were styling an elm or hackberry.  They display the bonsai defoliated or with few leaves and no flowers.

Clip and grow technique entails letting a branch elongate and thicken and then trimming it back to a short stub.  It is an effective technique but it takes  time, especially for a bougainvillea as it is a vine. The shoots are naturally long and thin.  It takes years to develop the taper in the bougainvillea branches. It also limits the flowering as the flowers like to grow at the end of long shoots.

Bougies are not native to southeast Asia – they are relatively new additions to the flora of the region (probably imported by Count de Bougainville’s circumnavigation campaign. He was the 14th navigator, and the first Frenchman, to sail around the world  – but that’s a story for another time.) What is interesting is how the Chinese and Taiwanese have developed the specimens with fat trunks, taper and no evidence of deadwood rot.  

Count de Bougainville had a varied and interesting career including having an island and the Paper Flower tree named after him.

The lack of rot from major cuts was perhaps the most interesting aspect I noticed of these large bonsai.  The reasons for this definitely deserve further study.  Upon pondering the situation, I now keep my bougainvillea bonsai away from my overhead sprinkler system.  I only water the soil.  The rain does make the scars wet but hopefully the rain only will slow down the rot giving time for the cuts to heal. We shall see. 
Please enjoy the following photos of some incredible bougainvillea pensai. 

One of the most impressive bonsai I’ve ever seen is this weeping style Paper Flower tree from Schenzen, China. It is owned by a wealthly bonsai collector who has a staff to tend to his trees.  Each day it must take a staff member  a few hours to bend and wire every little shoot into this weeping style cascading waterfall effect. That this is a Paper Flower tree makes the accomplishment more impressive.

Here is a Taiwan bougy grown to show the shape of the tree.

Another Chinese bougy grown for the shape and not the flowering. By Chen Chen.


This bougy by Lin Xuezhou of China had an airy lingnam feel to it. Note, no leaves or flowers.

Egads, this Taiwan bougy has a full flowering canopy. But note the unruly shoots – a characteristic of the viny nature of bougainvillea bonsai. Who cares though, the flowers are magnificent.

As seen above, in Taiwan there are also bougies shown with lots of flowers. When styling a bougainvillea keep the two design goals as options. The solution might be to have some bougies where a few  have been designed to show flowers and a few have great structure.  And maybe in unicorn land you can make one that has both.