About Plumeria

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Plumeria / Frangipani

Nothing evokes that tropical feeling quite like the Plumeria. Their sweet scent and sheer beauty make them universally loved and the blooms look sensational on the tree and as a cut flower. Pick up some freshly fallen blooms and float them in a bath or bowl of water and it’s easy to feel you’re relaxing in a fabulous tropical day spa!

Most familiar in their white and yellow form, they also come in loads of tropical and sunset colors, becoming more colorful the closer to the equator you go. Plumeria are also tough plants that can survive neglect, heat and drought and still fill the garden with a wonderful perfume. What more could you ask for in a tree?

Description & Varieties

This section provides a description of the plants available, and details the varieties most commonly kept in the home garden.

  • Plumeria (/plˈmɛriə/; common name plumeria or frangipani) is a genus of flowering plants in the dogbane family, Apocynaceae. It contains primarily deciduous shrubs and small trees. The flowers are native to Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America as far south as Brazil but can be grown in tropical and sub-tropical regions.
  • Plumeria alba is a species of the genus Plumeria (Apocynaceae). This 2-8 m evergreen shrub has narrow elongated leaves, large and strongly perfumed white flowers with a yellow center. Native to Central America and the Caribbean, it is now common and naturalized in southern and southeastern Asia.
  • Plumeria clusioides is a species of the genus Plumeria in the family Apocynaceae. It is endemic to the Island of Cuba. Some authors consider P. clusioides to be the same species as P. obtusa, but we follow the lead of the World Checklist produced by Kew Royal Gardens in London in accepting it as a distinct species.
  • Plumeria obtusa, the Singapore graveyard flower, is a species of the genus Plumeria (Apocynaceae). It is native to the West Indies including Bahamas; southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Florida. but widely cultivated for its ornamental and fragrant flowers around the world, where suitably warm climate exists. It is reportedly naturalized in China.
  • Plumeria pudica is a species of the genus Plumeria (Apocynaceae), native to Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. This profuse bloomer has unusual spoon-shaped leaves, and its flowers are white with a yellow center.

    There is a variegated leaved Plumeria pudica commonly called Golden Arrow or Gilded Spoon, also a pink flowering hybrid produced in Thailand called Sri Supakorn or Pink pudica.

  • Plumeria rubra is a deciduous plant species belonging to the genus Plumeria. Originally native to Mexico, Central America, Colombia and Venezuela, it has been widely cultivated in subtropical and tropical climates worldwide and is a popular garden and park plant, as well as being used in temples and cemeteries. It grows as a spreading tree to 7–8 m (23–26 ft) high and wide, and is flushed with fragrant flowers of shades of pink, white and yellow over the summer and autumn. Its common names include frangipani, red paucipanred-jasminered frangipani, common frangipani, temple tree, or simply plumeria.

 

History, Facts & Legends

Did you know that plumeria will only burn in extreme heat (over 500 degrees)? In this section, learn a little about the history of plumeria and some little known facts. We also share some myths and legends about plumeria from around the world.

Plumeria / Frangipani Names

How did the plumeria get it’s name? And the frangipani? In this section, we give you the lowdown, not just on how they got their original names, but also what plumeria are called around the world.

Description

Plumeria are relatively small trees typically growing only to about 12-15 feet in height, but what they lack in height they make up in width often becoming as wide as they are tall. They have a well-behaved root system which makes them great for the home garden and for growing in pots. Plumeria are also great survivors coping with drought, heat, neglect and insect and pest attack. They are also deciduous allowing maximum winter sun while providing shade in summer.

With its gnarled branches, long leaves and distinctive flowers, the plumeria is easily one of the most common and identifiable trees. The bark is grey/green and scaly in appearance. The scaling is formed when leaves drop in winter leaving small semi-circular marks on the bark. The branches have a swollen appearance and the leaves, dark green on the top and a lighter shade of green underneath, cluster at the tips of branches.  A cut made on any part of the tree will exude a milky, sticky sap that is poisonous to both humans and animals.

Plumeria flowers appear in clusters, also at the end of the branches, and are distinctively scented. The petals are waxy with the center of the flower a different color to the rest. For example the most common plumeria has white flowers with a yellow center. There are many varieties ranging from deep crimson to orange , yellow and white (and every shade in between). Unlike some flowering trees which bloom for a few days or weeks, plumeria go on flowering. Flowers appear from May to October in the US and December to April in Australia, and even longer in warmer climates.

Varieties

Plumeria (common name Frangipani) is a small genus of 7-8 species native to tropical and subtropical Americas. The genus consists of mainly deciduous shrubs and trees. From Mexico and Central America, Plumeria has spread to all tropical areas of the world, especially Hawaii, where it grows so abundantly that many people think that it is indigenous there.

Plumeria is related to the Oleander (Nerium oleander) and both possess poisonous, milky sap, rather similar to that of Euphorbia. Each of the separate species of Plumeria bears differently shaped leaves and their form and growth habits are also distinct.

Plumeria Obtusa is a mainly evergreen tree (deciduous in dry seasons) with spreading branches and a rounded dome. Although its common name is “Singapore”, it is originally from Colombia. Height to 24′ and spread to 12′. Leaves are pointed and oval up to 18″ long. Tubular fragrant flowers occur in summer – autumn.

Plumeria Rubra (and variation Plumeria Acutifolia) also known as the Common Frangipani or Red Frangipani, is native to Mexico, Central America, and Venezuela. It is a deciduous, spreading, sparsely branched tree or shrub with a height to 15′ and spread to 12′ and more. Produces fragrant flowers with 5 spreading petals, ranging from yellow to pink depending on form or cultivar, in summer to autumn. Leaves are lance shaped to oval, and 9″ to 18″ long.

History

It is generally thought that plumeria are native to South & Central America although some reports claim they are native to the Caribbean and were taken to the Americas by Spanish priests.

According to Steven Prowse, of Sacred Garden Plumeria’s, frangipani arrived in Australia from South America via the Polynesian peoples who inter bred with the Melanesian peoples & established villages in the Melanesian region in what is now New Guinea. From there, frangipani came to Australia via 2 routes.

The first was via the Torres Strait Islands which are between Australia and New Guinea and are less than a day’s paddle in a dugout canoe from either. The Torres Strait Islanders traded & interbred with both the New Guinea & Australian aboriginal peoples and brought the frangipani to both the Torres Straits and Australia. The islanders consider the frangipani a sacred plant.

The second & most important wave of frangipani introduction into Australia happened in the late 1800’s through to the 1920’s through Polynesian missionaries and, later, slaves. The missions were established in remote northern tropical regions of Australia by the Polynesian-based church missions who brought with them Polynesian & Melanesian Christians, coconuts & frangipani. Most missions failed to survive long term in these disease, snake and crocodile-infested and cyclone-prone areas, and were abandoned. They eventually vanished into the tropical jungle with only the drought-hardy frangipani surviving. Most of the more beautiful varieties of frangipani found in Australia were brought directly from Polynesia & Melanesia by these missionaries.

Later, gold mining and a pioneering sugar cane industry was established in parts of the region and the land had to be cleared by hand. The work was too dangerous, hot & difficult for the European settlers, who turned to the enslavement of captured Polynesians as forced laborers to establish their sugar cane plantations.  In time laws were changed and the Polynesian slaves were set free.

Many stayed and others returned to their Polynesian homelands bringing back family members and many varieties of their sacred frangipani.

Today, frangipani are found in most parts of Australia as they will tolerate a wide range of conditions and are probably one of the easiest plants to grow from a cutting.

Little-Known Facts about the Plumeria

  • Many Hawaiian leis are made from Plumeria flowers.
  • The colorful caterpillar of Pseudosphinx tetrio feeds only on Plumeria rubra.
  • Cole Porter’s song “A Stroll on the Plaza Sant’ Ana” (from the musical Panama Hattie, 1940) mentions Plumeria.
  • Plumeria are good hosts for dendrobium orchids.
  • The plumeria is the national tree of Laos, where it is called dok jampa. It is regarded as a sacred tree in Laos and every Buddhist temple in that country has them planted in their courtyards. Many of the trees are hundreds of years old and are spectacular, huge, gnarled giants.
  • The plumeria is the flower of the city of Palermo in Sicily, Italy.
  • The plumeria is the national flower of Nicaragua and it features on some of their bank notes.
  • Plumeria won’t burn except in extreme (over 500 degrees) temperatures.
  • In Caribbean cultures the leaves are used as poultices (a healing wrap) for bruises and ulcers and the latex is used as a liniment for rheumatism.
  • According to Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs (by Scott Cunningham; Llewellyn Publications, 1984) the plumeria (frangipani) is associated with the feminine, ruled by Venus, its element is water, its deity is Buddha, its power is love and its magical uses are in love spells.
  • The plumeria is also associated with love in feng shui.
  • In modern Polynesian culture, the plumeria can be worn by women to indicate their relationship status – over the right ear if seeking a relationship, and over the left if taken.
  • In India the plumeria is a symbol of immortality because of its ability to produce leaves and flowers even after it has been lifted out of the soil. It is often planted near temples and graveyards, where the fresh flowers fall daily upon the tombs.
  • In Vietnam the plumeria is used for its healing qualities: the bark, mashed in alcohol, prevents skin inflammation, it is also used to treat indigestion and high blood pressure, while the roots have purgative effects on animals and the milk-like sap serves as a balm for skin diseases. The white flowers are used in traditional medicine to cure high blood pressure, haemophilia, cough, dysentery and fever.

Plumeria Myths and Legends

  • There is a theory that Catholic missionary priests spread plumeria around the world as they traveled. This may explain why the plumeria is so popular and common in the Philippines and Thailand but very rare in China and Vietnam. Thailand and the Philippines welcomed the Christian missionaries while, in China and Vietnam, they were persecuted until around the 1850s.
  • Plumeria trees were once considered taboo in Thai homes because of superstitious associations with the plant’s Thai name, lantom, which is similar toratom, the Thai word for sorrow. As a result, plumeria were thought to bring unhappiness. Today, however, the blossoms are presented as fragrant offerings to Buddha and Thai people wear them on special festival days like Songkran (Thai New Year).
  • According to Vietnamese myth, ghosts live in trees with white and fragrant flowers including the plumeria. In Vietnam and China the color white is associated with death and funerals.
  • In Hindu culture, the flower means loyalty. Hindu women put a flower in their hair on their wedding days to show their loyalty to their husbands.
  • It’s believed the Aztecs used a decoration of plumeria flowers and other plant materials mixed with certain internal organs of predatory animals (with a reputation for cunning, strength and bravery) as a powerful potion against fear, lethargy and fainthearted.
  • “Warming” oils — such as those from Plumeria, sandalwood, lotus flower, frankincense, cinnamon and basil — are said to have a calming influence on those suffering from fear, anxiety, insomnia or tremors, according to the principles of Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old Indian holistic science that seeks to balance mind, body and spirit.
  • A popular legend among sailors shipping overseas from Hawaii during WWII was to toss a lei into the waters as the ship passed Diamond Head. If the lei floated ashore, the sailor would return. If it floated toward the ship, he wouldn’t be coming back.
  • In the language of flowers, Plumeria are said to stand for love long in absence, as for a sailor long at sea.
  • Plumeria are very rare in China, and even more precious than orchids. So, when a person gives plumeria flowers to a sweetheart, it is the closest thing to saying you’re special, I love you in a culture where expression of personal feelings is frowned upon.
  • According to Mexican (Lakandon) myth the gods were born from Plumeria flowers.
  • In Malay folklore the scent of the plumeria is associated with a vampire, the pontianak.

How the Plumeria and Frangipani Got Their Names

The name “Plumeria” is attributed to Charles Plumier, a 17th Century French botanist who described several tropical species, although according to author Peter Loewer, Plumier was not the first to describe Plumeria. That honor goes to Francisco de Mendoza, a Spanish priest who did so in 1522.

The name, frangipani, comes from the Italian nobleman, Marquis Frangipani, who created a perfume used to scent gloves in the 16th century. When the frangipani flower was discovered its natural perfume reminded people of the scented gloves, and so the flower was called frangipani. Another version has it that the name, frangipani, is from the French frangipanier which is a type of coagulated milk that Plumeria milk resembles.

Other Plants Which Go Under the Name Plumeria

The Climbing Frangipani or Frangipani Vine is not a Plumeria, but Chonemorpha Fragans (although it belongs to the same family, Apocynaceae).

The Australian Native Frangipani is not a Plumeria either. Hymenosporum Flavum belongs to the family Pittosporaceae.

Plumeria Names Around the World

The botanic name is Plumeria. Around the world the plumeria (frangipani) is called:

  • The Aztec word is Cocaloxochite.
  • Tipanier in Tahiti.
  • Dok jampa  or Dok champa in Laos
  • Pomelia and Frangipane in Italy
  • Couleuvre, or Snake Tree in St.Barths Bois
  • Kemboja kuning in Malaysia
  • Pansal Mal in Sri Lanka
  • Jepun in Bali, Indonesia
  • Flor de Mayo in Yucatan, Puebla, El Salvador
  • Flor de la Cruz in Guatemala
  • Pumeli or Melia in Hawaii
  • Amapola in Venezuela
  • Kang Nai Xin in China
  • Phool in India
  • Hoa Su (Southern ), Hoa Dai (Northern) and Hoa Su Ma (ghost Plumeria) in Vietnam
  • Kalachuchi in the Philippines
  • Flor de Cebo in the Canary Islands
  • Sacuanjoche in Nicaragua (the name is derived from the word “xacuan” from a native language called náhuatl and means “precious yellow feather or flower”.
  • Common names are Temple Tree or Pagoda Tree in India and the Far East, Graveyard Tree in the Caribbean Islands, Temple Flower in Sri Lanka, and May flower (for the time of flowering) in Nicaragua.

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