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Plumeria – a tropical treat!

By CATHY DUNN - Garden Club of Cape Coral | Jul 22, 2021

A plumeria in bloom. Photo by CHRIS STRINE

When I see plumeria blooming I immediately think of Hawaii, where these shrubs and small trees grow profusely, and the fragrant blooms are used to make leis. Because of their long-lasting, fragrant flowers and relatively low maintenance, plumeria are so commonly planted in cemeteries in Hawaii that they are often called “cemetery trees.” I always thought, mistakenly, that plumeria were native to Hawaii – but in fact they are native to tropical America from Brazil to Mexico and the Caribbean!

You have no doubt seen these plants with thick succulent branches and leaves clustered near the branch tips planted in our area; during the winter months most varieties lose all their leaves and appear as stark stick-like trunks and branches. But in early spring the tips of the branches begin to form leaves, and clusters of 5 petaled flowers appear from June through November. The blooms can be pink, red, yellow, white or pastel bicolor, and are very fragrant. The blooms’ fragrance, which is reminiscent of jasmine and gardenia, is released in the evening to attract night-flying sphinx moths which pollinate the flowers. This distinct fragrance is also the origin for an alternative name for the plant; the plumeria is sometimes called “frangipani,” which comes from the name of a 16th century Italian nobleman who created a perfume with a similar scent.

Plumeria require well-drained soil; they will tolerate drought but grow best in moist soil. The plants also require at least six hours of full sun daily. Throughout the active growing season plumeria should be fertilized with a high phosphorous fertilizer, such as 10-30-10, to encourage blooming.

The plants can be infested with common pests such as white flies, mealybugs and spider mites; insecticidal soap is the best control for these pests. The biggest problem I have encountered with plumeria is “plumeria rust,” which is a fungus specific to plumeria plants. When this fungus is present you will see yellow specks on the tops of the plants’ leaves; if you turn over the leaf you will find powdery orange lesions. The fungus can cause leaves to curl, turn brown and eventually fall off the plant. Fungicides can be used to control rust, and you can also remove affected leaves from the plant; it is also important to pick up all fallen leaves to prevent spreading the fungus to other plumeria plants.

Pruning will encourage branching in the plumeria plant; two or three new branches will emerge from each cut. The optimal time to prune plumeria is in the spring before blooms emerge. Any cuts should be made a few inches above the junction of two branches. A milky, latex-like substance will ooze from the cut; this is normal, and the cut branch will eventually form a callous. Be sure to wear gloves as this sap can cause skin irritation in some people.

“March in the Park,” the annual fundraiser of the Garden Club of Cape Coral, will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on March 12, at Jaycee Park in the Cape.

Plumeria can be propagated from seeds or stem cuttings. I have had success with seedlings, but the only way to ensure that your new plant will be identical to the parent plant is through cuttings. To start a new plant from a cutting, take a 12 to 18-inch cutting of a leafless stem tip in spring and allow the cut end to dry out thoroughly before planting in well drained soil. It generally takes one to three years for cuttings to bloom and sometimes longer for plants grown from seed.

You can find plumeria plants in most local garden centers, and if you have a neighbor with a large plant, perhaps you can convince them to provide you with a cutting in the spring.

There are also several nurseries specializing in tropical plants, including plumeria, in our area; a quick Google search will provide locations from Tampa to Naples. You can also find a wide variety of cuttings available online, with several nurseries in Hawaii specializing in rare and exotic plumeria.

If you want to add a tropical feel to your landscape, the plumeria is an easy and colorful plant that will provide that island vibe! The colorful blooms and beautiful fragrance will reward your efforts, and once your plants are established you can easily share them with friends and fellow gardeners to spread this tropical treat.

Cathy Dunn is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and a Garden Club of Cape Coral member.