Plumerias are small tropical trees that are widely grown throughout the tropical world. In some countries the plumeria is known as frangipani and it has a wide range of local language names as well. The blooms are used to make leis and most species have very fragrant flowers. Plumerias are often planted around temples and in cemeteries, which is why in some countries it is known as the graveyard flower.
In the tropics, plumeria trees flower on and off all year round. Each individual flower will last only one or two days before it drops off (some varieties last a few days longer, but often the flower becomes brown on the edges as it ages) but this doesn’t matter because the tree is continually producing new flowers when it is going through a flowering phase. There are usually a 6-12 flowers on the end of each branch at any one time.
The ‘traditional’ plumeria flower is white with a yellow throat, and that’s the species known as Plumeria alba which is most often planted around temples in Asia and used for making leis in the Pacific, but there are many other species and hundreds of cultivars which produce flowers in a range of pretty pastel colours through to the deep ruby red cultivars of the species known as Plumeria rubra.
For the best growth and flowering, plumerias need full sun and plenty of water, but they should never be allowed to become waterlogged because their roots can easily rot. They respond well to regular feeding with a balanced N-P-K fertilizer and the occasional application of a trace elements mix. If you feel your plumeria tree is not flowering enough, use a fertilizer with higher P and K numbers (i.e. less N because nitrogen promotes leaf growth).
Plumeria trees do best in well-drained organic soil where they will grow to 3-4 meters high within five years in the tropics. On rocky or clayey soils they will only grow to 2-3 meters during that time. Once they’ve reached four meters or so they will increase in height only slowly so they are suitable for planting in places in the garden where you do not want trees obstructing views from a second storey.
Old plumerias can grow to 10 meters high, but they are usually of a great age by the time they reach that height. Their branches are soft and widely spaced, so old trees are easy to prune, but be aware that the milky sap will irritate eyes and skin, so wear gloves when pruning or be careful not to let the free-flowing sap drip onto bare skin.
Plumerias don’t have an aggressive root system, so they can be planted quite close to buildings without doing any damage to foundations or underground pipes. They can also be grown in large pots, but growth and flowering will be constrained compared to plumerias planted in the ground.
Plumerias are easy to propagate. Simply prune a branch off (it can be up to a meter long), remove the leaves and leave it in a shady spot in the garden for about 10 days to let the cut dry out and seal itself. Then plant it in the ground ensuring that you use a coarse, sandy potting mix in the hole so that the cutting doesn’t rot in the ground before it has a chance to produce roots.
The potting mix in which you have planted the cutting should be kept damp but not too moist. It will cope with drying out for a few days if you forget to water, but it won’t tolerate getting waterlogged. Therefore it’s best to plant cuttings in the dry season rather than the rainy season.
Plumerias are prone to a few pest and disease problems, but none that will kill the tree. The most common is plumeria rust which causes the leaves to discolor and drop off. If that becomes a problem, the easiest way to deal with it is to remove the affected leaves and dispose of them in a sealed plastic bag in the trash. Don’t consign them to the compost heap.
Mealy bug and spider mite are common pest problems but will usually do no harm other than cause leaves to drop off prematurely. If either become unsightly, then consult a local nursery or garden store for advice on chemicals that have been approved for spraying in your country. For mealy bug there are a few non-toxic options available but these don’t usually work for spider mite.
Aside from brightening up your garden or patio with beautiful colors and fragrances, plumeria flowers look lovely when plucked and placed in a large decorative pot (with the drainage hole sealed of course) filled with water. You’ve probably seen many resort hotels in the tropics doing that around their reception areas. It’s a great idea to give the entrance to your own home a tropical ‘Bali-feel’.