The Exotic Frangipani

Frangipani, a wildly tropical plant; in name and exotic looking foliage and flower, is a contrast of sorts. The foliage pre-bloom is coarse and the stems lanky, but once the plant opens even one flower – all that changes and the plant becomes a tropical blooming beauty. With exquisite flowers having a richness and depth of color that few flowers can achieve, Frangipani adds “icing to the cake” with an enticing citrusy, cocoa butter/cinnamon fragrance to the garden as well.

Frangipani blooming in Zilker Botanical Garden, Austin Texas

Frangipani blooming in Zilker Botanical Garden, Austin, Texas in May

The plant is known as Plumeria, named in honor of the seventeenth century French botanist, Charles Plumier who travelled to the Antilles and Central America recording many plants and animals. At the age of 16 he joined the religious order of the Minims in France and devoted himself to mathematics and physics. After being sent to Rome, Plumier began to study botany and once he returned to France, he began work exploring the coasts of Provence and Languedoc. At the age of 43 he went on his first botanical expedition to the French Antilles. It was a success and he was appointed royal botanist. During his three botany expeditions he was the first to identify and describe the beautiful Fuchsia. The genus name in his honor was originally spelled Plumiera (and some still use this spelling).

The common name, frangipani comes from a sixteenth-century Italian nobleman, the Marquis Frangipani who invented a method of perfuming gloves that came to be known as Frangipani gloves. When the Plumeria flower was discovered, the scent reminded people of the fragrance Frangipani used to scent gloves and so the name began to be associated with the plant too. Another theory for the frangipani name is that the white Plumeria sap resembles the French product frangipanier, a type of coagulated milk.

Plumeria is just a small genus of 8 species originally native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. The plant was frequently transported by Spanish Catholic priests as they travelled to new areas. Each species has different leaf shapes and growth habits. Many species have naturalized in southern and southeast Asia.

Plumeria is in the Apocynanceae (dogbane) family with oleander and periwinkle. The family contains mainly tall trees found in the tropical rainforests. Plumeria is a deciduous shrubs or small tree here in Central Texas, but in tropical regions Plumeria can grow up to 30 feet high and wide. Plumeria, like Oleander has some poisonous properties, but is not nearly as bad as some of the other family members. The milky sap, found in all plant parts is irritating to the skin, just like many Euphorbias.

Frangipani blooming in Langkawi, Malaysia

Frangipani blooming in Langkawi, Malaysia

The beautiful flowers are admired for their deep and rich in coloration and beautiful shading. Mostly Plumeria flowers can be found in combinations of whites, yellow, corals, pinks, and purples from March through October. New curly blooms have been introduced to add a new twist to the pinwheel effect of the blooms as they unfold. Some cultivars have up to 200 blooms in a cluster (others only 50). The flowers are used for making leis in Hawaii.

Flowers are most fragrant at night in order to lure the sphinx moths to come pollinate them. But, interestingly no nectar is contained in the flower. The moths pollinate the flowers as they search from one to the next looking for the non-existent nectar.

Frangipani can be propagated by taking 4 inch to 1 foot cuttings of the thick stems, allow them to dry off for two weeks (like a cactus) and then sticking them into a gallon pot of a mixture containing 2/3 perlite and 1/3 peat or potting soil. Add a coarse draining material (like pea gravel) on the top 1 inch of the pot. Water well, then let the soil dry before watering again. Spring cuttings will take about 90 days to produce a full root ball – when they can be transplanted.
Plumeria seeds are not true to the parent plant, but if you are willing to experiment to find new colors – this is the way. The reds and pinks apparently reveal the greatest variation in color. The few Plumeria seeds produced have a long narrow wing attached to the seed. Insert the seed so that it is under the soil and the wing is sticking above the soil. Keep the potting soil moist and germination should take place in about 21 days.

Grow Plumeria in full sun (or at least 6 hours) for the best blooms. It is one of the most sun and wind tolerant of the tropical plants. Plant it in well drained (particularly during the winter), organic soils. Prune the plant during the active growing season. Try to prune for a pleasing shape but this is not often possible because of the natural way that Plumeria grow. The leaves tend to grow only near the branch tips and few branches are produced. Pests are few, but sometimes scale is a problem and rot when too much moisture is present around the roots.

Fragrant Frangipani at sunset in Langkawi

Fragrant Frangipani at sunset in Langkawi

Plumeria are not very winter hardy – only to zone 9. Protect from cold damage when temperatures dip below 40 deg. F. and especially if frost is forecast. Use frost cloth or mulch inground to ensure that the roots will overwinter in Central Texas. Grow in a pot and move to a protected location. Often the cooler weather will cause the leaves to drop in the fall. If temps drop below 32 deg. F. plant stems turn to mush. Some frangipani growers bury their plants underground to protect them from the winter cold temperatures. The cultivar ‘Texas Sunshine’ is reputed to be one of the most cold tolerant (to 25 deg. F). Other supposedly hardy Plumerias are ‘Celadine”, ‘Aztec Gold’ and ‘Samoan Fluff.’

There are over 300 named varieties of Plumeria.

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