Exotic Plumerias
by Tineke Wilders
by Tineke Wilders

Tineke is a native of The Netherlands and immigrated to Canada in 1972, then to southern California in 1985, where she lived and gardened for 18 years. In the late 70's, she wrote and hosted 39 weekly ½ hr TV gardening shows “World of Plants” for CBC Canada. She also started writing a regular garden column for the national magazine CHATELAINE, as well as several newspapers, such as the Toronto Globe & Mail and Calgary Herald.

A graduate of the California Master Gardener Program in 1987, she has written weekly gardening columns in the San Diego Union/Tribune for over 10 years and still writes a weekly column in the ‘North County Times’ and ‘Californian’ since over 12 years now.

She has also written numerous garden stories in magazines, such as Better Homes/Gardens and had a weekly gardening spot on KPBS Public Radio for over 2 years.

In 1995 she took a sabbatical and lived in Northern Michigan and completed the Michigan Master Gardener Program.

She currently studies and photographs tropical flowering trees and plants for a future book and travels extensively.

June 20, 2010

In climates like southern California, the exotic flowering Plumeria behaves as a deciduous tree, meaning it loses all its leaves during the winter months. As it is a heat-loving plant, it will only bloom when it receives a lot of heat between March and October. They do not like a constant moist soil (the roots will rot and as a result, the stem will topple over), so the tree should only be watered when it is quite dry. During dormancy, which is during the winter months, the soil should be kept on the dry side. Plumerias, also known as Frangipani, grow naturally in Southern Mexico and Central America into Panama, as well as all over the tropical Hawaiian Islands and other parts of Polynesia, where they are most famous for their gorgeous welcome flower necklace garlands, called ‘leis’. Its strongly perfumed flowers come in red, yellow, white, pink and even come in bi-colors.

A semi-tropical climate lends itself for growing these exotic flowers; they can be planted in pots or directly in the ground. Near the coastal areas, they are best grown in full sun and in the inland areas, keep them in partial shade. I have seen many gardens in North San Diego County, where there is an old tree in the front yard, from as low as a couple of feet to as high as a 20 feet mature tree! In the right location and with a little bit of assistance from the weather, Plumeria can become a beautiful show piece in a sunny and warm garden.

However, they are definitely not frost tolerant and root rot can be a problem from excessive watering or winter rains. If frost can be a predicament in your area, it’s best to grow your Plumeria plant in a container and move it indoors in a bright window or into a frost-free shed or garage during the colder winter months.

It is very critical to start a feeding program right after the plant comes out of its dormancy. Between the months of March through May, feed a high Nitrogen fertilizer to encourage new growth. Once the spring growth appears, then switch to a monthly feeding of a high bloom (Phosphorus) fertilizer until September. Plumeria can continue blooming well into November.

Typically, Plumerias are grown from cuttings. The species that most commercial growers offer is called ‘rubra’. They have large leathery, pointed leaves, mainly clustered towards the end of the branches in apparent whorls. Clustered flowers are 5 petaled, long- tubed, showy, waxy, and often very fragrant, something that you don’t want to miss out on! Check at your local garden center for their availability, as there are many commercial growers, especially on the Hawaiian Islands, where you should be able to order them by variety name.

Plumerias belong in the Apocynaceae family (same family as Oleander and Vinca), and they exude a milky latex-like sap to which some people might be allergic to, so be careful when pruning branches or picking flowers.

If you are still having flowers on your plant or tree, collect some fresh ones and place them inside a shallow glass dish, where they can float for a beautiful table decoration, or put some on your bathroom vanity. They last for several days. For a flower necklace (‘lei’ ), you would need a whole bunch of Plumeria flowers, and with some yarn and a big needle, slide the flowers one by one through their center hole onto the yarn until you have about a two feet long flower garland. Then wear it with ‘island pride’ for a special occasion!

Overnight, you can keep the flowers fresh inside a plastic bag in the refrigerator and this way you get to enjoy wearing it several days. Or you may want to dry it, but first enjoy it profusely!

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