Like many visitors to Hawaii, I fell in love with the plumeria trees.
I appreciated the beauty of the five petal flowers in colors of white, yellow and pink, but I fell even harder for the intoxicating fragrance. I imagined they were native to the South Pacific as they seemed so at home there. It turns out they are originally from Central America, Mexico and certain islands in the Caribbean.
They have several interesting common names. The name, frangipani tree, according to Dr. John Grimshaw in The Gardener’s Atlas, comes from a famous perfume-maker in Italy in the 12th century who created a wonderful scent from a mixture of many different plants. When explorers smelled the scent of the plumeria flowers they thought it identical to the famous perfume.
Other common names for plumeria are resurrection tree and temple tree. These names come from the plant’s ability to grow from apparently lifeless cuttings of leafless branches. These cuttings were easily transported throughout the tropics and were frequently planted outside temples and at grave sites.
The scientific genus name plumeria comes from the French plant explorer Charles Plumier. There are two main species: plumeria obtuse, a white flowering tree, and plumeria rubra, which can have white, yellow, red or pink blossoms. Plumeria rubra is what we most often see growing here on the mainland.
To grow plumeria here in our area it will need to be protected from our frosts. Luckily, plumeria grow well in containers so they can be moved to protected areas like garages or even inside the house. I’ve grown several from the cuttings that seem to be for sale wherever you go in Hawaii. I lost one to frost.
I also learned that the trunk and branches could be scalded by our hot afternoon sun. The leaves tend to form on the ends of the branches. Leaf size ranges from 10 to 12 inches long and 2 to 4 inches wide. The trees themselves top out at about 30 feet when planted in the ground in the tropics. Grown here in containers they stay much smaller. They can also be pruned to be smaller; however, heavy pruning will delay flower growth.
I was surprised to read that plumeria can tolerate drought by dropping their leaves and becoming semi-dormant. Water requirement is only moderate in contrast to many tropical plants. Plumeria rubra also routinely drops its leaves in winter and watering should be sharply reduced at that point. Plumeria obtuse does not drop its leaves and stays evergreen.
Plumeria can tolerate some wind and salt, but they do require good drainage. They can be grown from seed although most are grown from cuttings. Cuttings should be allowed to dry or form a callus for at least a week before being planted.
The reason people grow plumeria, of course, is because of its flowers. This year my patience is finally being rewarded. After many years of waiting, I finally have a bloom spike. The books say plants grown from cuttings frequently bloom within the first few years, but I have not been that fortunate. I suspect a combination of frost damage, pruning, and inadequate fertilization led to delayed flower production.
I doubt I will have enough flowers to make a lei or perfume, which are common uses of plumeria flowers. However, I intend to enjoy the fragrance and beauty of the flowers, nonetheless. Having to wait so long will make them smell all the sweeter.
Karen Metz is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.