Whether you call it frangipani or plumeria, this small flowering tree makes a stunning tropical accent
By Ralph E. Mitchell
The plumeria are starting to bloom around Charlotte County, and in spite of our drought, they are thriving. I noticed the one in our Demonstration garden was producing a cluster of red and orange flowers and thought how well it was doing with minimum water. Then, I started seeing more blooming around the county and this reconfirmed my observation. I drove down one street in Port Charlotte and saw at least six plumerias in front yards – showcase plants that caught my eye! Rather quickly developing into an umbrella or vase-shape small tree in time, the plumeria is an amazing landscape subject worthy of your yard and garden.
The plumeria (or Frangipani as I knew it in the West Indies) is an interesting tropical plant that catches the eyes of both gardeners and non-gardeners alike. The spectacular fragrant flowers top the ends of the chubby, rubbery branches. The flowers are actually the ones used to make leis. I found a figure of twelve million flowers sold from farms in Hawaii in 2006 alone! But beyond the plumeria as a flower crop, they are popular here in Southwest Florida as easy-to-grow large deciduous shrubs to small trees growing no more than twenty feet tall. Many gardeners started their first plumeria from a stick-like cutting purchased from a garden show vender. Cuttings root easily and actually begin flowering from a relatively early age. Use cuttings that are from mature grey wood and about one-foot long and a half-inch wide for best results. Let the cutting air dry and callus over a bit before potting. Plumeria can also be propagated from seed, via grafting or air layering.
Plumeria make wonderful yard specimens or a deck or patio accent as they are attention-grabbers with two to four inch fragrant flowers in red, white, yellow, pink, orange, or variegated. Plumeria also adapt well to large containers. Plumerias are drought and salt tolerant, and it is essential that the soil be well-drained to prevent root rots. Also keep in mind that the plumeria is cold-sensitive and may need protection in certain areas. Officially listed as for hardiness Zones 10B through 11, try to keep plumeria in microclimates which promote and enhance a warm pocket of air during potential freezes and frosts. I have had plumeria suffer some light freeze damage and recover without too much of a problem. With the cold of winter and/or droughty conditions, a plumeria will drop its leaves for a short time leaving a bare tree. This can take the showiness out of the plumeria for a short time, but it will rather quickly grow new leaves and begin to bloom when spring conditions return.
Perhaps the biggest problem with plumerias in our area is a fungal disease called plumeria rust. This rust disease manifests itself as yellow-orange spots on the undersides of the leaves. Plumeria rust can cause leaves to drop prematurely. Timely applications of certain fungicides can help suppress this disease. The greater number of healthy leaves you can maintain, the more flowers will likely be produced the next season. One additional pest is only rarely seen in our area – a large colorful hawkmoth caterpillar with black and yellow stripes, orange legs and a red head complete with a wagging tail. Particular to plumeria, this moth caterpillar has been seen mostly in Punta Gorda. When working in groups, this ornate caterpillar can cause defoliation. For control, simply hand-pick this large, six-inch caterpillar and dispose.
Plumeria have a part in your landscape – grow one today! For more information on all types of small flowering trees suitable for our area, please call our Master Gardener volunteers on the Plant Lifeline on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 4 pm at 764-4340 for gardening help and insight into their role as an Extension volunteer. Don’t forget to visit our other County Plant Clinics in the area. Please check this link for a complete list of site locations, dates and times – http://charlotte.ifas.ufl.edu/horticulture/Plant%20Clinics%20Schedule.pdf.
Gilman, E. F. & Watson, D. G. (2014) Plumeria rubra: Frangipani. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Caldwell, D. (2017) Frangipani for the Bugs: Hornworm caterpillars, Rust Disease and more. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS – Collier County.
Koeser, A. K., Hasing, G., McLean, D. (2016) Plumeria: Propagation from Cuttings. The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS.
Scheper, J. (2007) Plumeria spp. Floridata.com, Tallahassee, FL.
Nelson, S. (2009)Plumeria Rust. University of Hawaii at Manoa Extension Service.
The Florida-Friendly Landscaping Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design (2010) The University of Florida Extension Services, IFAS.