It’s the Season of Bougainvillea in San Francisco

Because of San Francisco’s unique microclimates, flora of all types thrive in the seven-by-seven. Bougainvillea is one of those effortlessly growing plants.

San Francisco is a city where small pockets of beauty exist around every corner. I’ve lived here now for nearly a decade  — having previously made the move from Austin, Texas’s scenic hill country — and continue to be gobsmacked by this city’s grand appeal. (This, however, isn’t to say there aren’t more issues here to shake a six-foot stick at; misplaced trash is still everywhere.)

Being a born-and-bred Texan, I’m accustomed to the year oscillating between two seasons: Half the year when things are green and alive, and the other of the year when things are brown and dead. Bluebonnets and other wildflowers blossom in the state to help bring much-needed splashes of color to otherwise barren hillsides. But it’s still a fairly cheap affair. And not even the densest bluebonnet field can compare to an Edwardian San Francisco home that’s drenched in blooming bougainvillea come summer, specifically toward the end of August and into early September.

Described by horticulturists as a tropical vine-like shrub, bougainvillea is incredibly drought tolerant, loves the sun, and grows effortlessly in mild winter areas of California — like San Francisco. Bougainvillea plants are vigorous growers, often overtaking anything they cling to if not kept in check; mature plants can grow upwards of 20-plus feet tall (with adequate support). Being perennials, their colors remain bright throughout most of the year. However, bougainvillea truly comes alive with its pink and purple Pantones through the summer.

There are an estimated 20 varieties of bougainvillea located in the Bay Area, which range in color from printing-paper white to deep yellow and are common fixtures at local nurseries. In SF proper, the purple, pink, and magenta varieties seem to have the most presence — types found at the Sloat Garden Center. Though, you’d be hard-pressed to not find a local garden house that doesn’t carry bougainvillea… make sure you don’t leave without first speaking to a staff member about how to care for your specific type.

(Fun fact: Because they produce nearly no scent, bougainvillea creates sweet nectar that entices primarily butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds to feast and helps the plants pollinate. Bees, however, aren’t good pollinators for the plant.)

Photo: Courtesy of Instagram via [at] allmyheartin.sf

San Francisco has an interesting relationship with the omnipresent vine. For one, they appear somewhat neighborhood-specific.

While you’ll have a difficult time spotting growth of them in, say, SoMa or the Tenderloin, blankets of bougainvillea are commonplace in the Mission District and Noe Valley. The Haigh-Ashbury and the Castro, too, are painted with these hardy, colorful vines; the Marina and Cow Hollow are also famous for their “bougainvillea houses.”

Are they potted placeholders that signal gentrification? Kind of, yeah.

You’d be remiss to not say that most bougainvillea in San Francisco now cover areas that have seen working-class and BIPOC communities pushed out over the past few decades.

Courtesy of Instagram via [at]allmyheartin.sf

Are these plants also signs of sunny, temperate conditions? Yes, for sure.

There’s a reason why bougainvillea thrives in areas of SF that receive strong direct sunlight and exist where Karl The Fog isn’t as overbearing.

No matter where (or when) you come across bougainvillea in the city, ogle away. There’s a reason why these climbing vines are blooming all over your social media feeds, after all.

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