Resplendent Plumerias

'Jeanne Moragne'
a substantial flower over 4" across in Miami conditions

If you have never grown and flowered a Plumeria, you are missing some of the greatest fragrances and colors in the flowering tree world. If you are a Northerner in addition to being new to this genus, you're in for a double treat, since no northern tree does anything like a Plumeria. Most of the species in this genus have brilliant flowers on hefty, statuesque trees. The major complaint people have is that the trees go leafless at some part of the short days of the year. Some Floridians call this period "winter". I call it the best time of year for people to tend their gardens. In any language, this is a great group of plants, with a lot of advantages and a few quirks, as with so many plants. Plus, there are numerous websites and societies to help with your new plants.

Plumeria species are succulents, mostly from very dry climates in Central America. While they grow quite well as "regular" landscape plants in South Florida and southern California and south Texas, a hard frost will cause major damage. They need well-drained soil, and as much sunshine as they can get. Their ideal growing conditions is an all-day sun position, in a raised bed with excellent drainage, and occasional irrigation in the driest parts of the summer. A dose of slow-release fertilizer such as Dynamite 13-13-13 or Sierrablen or Osmocote placed in the rootzone will keep them growing all through the warm months. The plants are undemanding of special fertilizer care.
One of the greatest attributes of this genus is its ability to root from cuttings, although they can also be grafted. It used to be commonplace to buy a leafless "stick" with a paraffin wax coating on one end from a mail order firm. You could remove the wax, plant it in a sunny area in a pot, and the stick would sprout leaves, then a bouquet of flowers of rich color and the trademark fragrance. As landscape plants, prune them back to 12 inch branch lengths to induce a compact and well-branched canopy. At each pruned cut, the stems will branch into either 3 or 5 new shoots, each of which will produce a flower head.

Plumeria cutting, dipped in rooting powder
courtesy of Just West Nursery

Most hybrids of the genus have wonderful fragrances, reminiscent of coconut, mango, and occasionally citrus. The most frequent comment is that Plumeria flowers smell like coconut suntan oil. ( perhaps the memory related to a trip to Hawaii long ago...). 

A number of sources sell Plumerias, mostly from cuttings. Florida Colors Nursery in Homestead, FL sells grafted plants as well as cuttings. They also have a substantial web site with a blizzard of varieties featured at http://www.floridacolors.com/. The primary reason for grafting these plants is that some of the varieties grow slowly or are weak growers. Grafting them onto strong rootstocks boosts the plant's vigor, and the grafted plants grow better than the scion would by itself. There are so many varieties and fragrances that the biggest problem I face is the lack of space in which to grow them ! 


'Lemon Drop'
In recent years I have grown fond of growing the dwarf varieties in pots at my apartment. There are a number of dwarf cultivars, and even the larger standard types can be pruned using some bonsai techniques to keep them in the size range I want. With so many colors to choose from, I have a series of tiered benches outside my front door on which I grow just Plumerias, enjoying the fragrances every day when I leave for work.    

'Scott Pratt'
 One cautionary note, though. The flower sizes quoted by many Hawaiian and Asian sources can be a bit misleading. A plant growing in the perfect climate of Hawaii on the Big Island or in southern India may indeed produce 6 inch flowers, but would produce a 3 inch flower in the drier, somewhat cooler annual climate of central Florida or coastal California.

an evergreen standard tree to 30 feet tall,
flowering most of the year
Even in conservatories and sunny windows of northern states, Plumerias can be grown successfully. The colors are dazzling, well worth the effort. If cactus and succulents can be grown well in your growing climate, so can these beauties of the tropics.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

'Gold Cup'
courtesy of Florida Colors Nursery
Homestead, FL

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