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pronounced: ploo-MEER-ee-uh species
(Apocynaceae – the oleander family)
common name: Frangipani
No resident of Magnetic Island, nor any visitor to it, could be unaware of the countless frangipani trees that adorn our nature strips and gardens, with their heady perfume sweetening the air in the evenings. It is a common sight to see tourists collecting fallen blossoms from under the trees.
The genus, originally spelled Plumiera, was named in honour of the 17th century French botanist Charles Plumier, who travelled to the Americas and documented many plant and animal species. Frangipani was the name of an Italian perfume used to scent gloves in the 16th century, and named after its creator, the Marquis Frangipani. When the flower was discovered, its perfume reminded people of the perfume of the scented gloves.
Native to Central America, Mexico and Venezuela, and related to the oleander, the trees grow from about 5 to 8 metres tall. The leaves are dark green and shiny (though most local trees are affected by rust) with a prominent midrib. The stems and leaves contain a white, milky sap. Frangipani are now found in all tropical regions.
There are quite a few varieties of frangipani on the island, including Plumeria acutifolia (Latin – ‘pointed leaves’), that has white flowers with yellow centres; Plumeria rubra (‘red’), deep pink flowers with yellow centres; Plumeria lutea (‘yellow’), yellow flowers sometimes flushed pink; and Plumeria tricolor (‘three-coloured’), white flowers with yellow centres and red or pink tips. Most of the local trees are deciduous, losing practically all of their leaves before bursting into flower, but some varieties and cultivars keep their leaves during the flowering. The highly scented flowers are most fragrant at night, in order to attract sphinx moths to pollinate them. The flowers have no nectar, and the scent is exuded simply to attract the moths, who pollinate them by transferring pollen from flower to flower as they fruitlessly search for nectar.
Seed pods are produced only occasionally, and take 8 or 9 months to mature. They grow to full size very quickly in the first 2 months or so, and the rest of the time is for the seeds to develop. The pods can have one or two horns, either long and pointed or shorter and more oval, and contain 30 – 100 seeds, depending on the cultivar. The seeds have a wing on one end, and the other end enlarged to contain the embryo. If left on the tree, the pods eventually dehisce and the seeds are dispersed by the wind. If it is desired to save the seeds, the pod should be enclosed when it ripens, preferably in a cloth bag, to prevent the dispersal. Signs of ripening include a shrivelling of the outer skin, and the appearance of a crack down the length of the pod.
In several Pacific islands, such as Tahiti, Fiji, Hawaii, Tonga and the Cook Islands, the frangipani is used for making leis. In modern Polynesian culture, the flower can be worn by women to indicate their status situation – a flower tucked behind the right ear means they are looking for a relationship, and behind the left ear means they are already in a relationship, and not available.
In parts of southern Asia, the trees are reputed to shelter ghosts and demons. In Malay folklore, the scent of the flowers is associated with vampires. The trees are associated with temples in both Hindu and Buddhist cultures, although Hindus don’t use the flowers in their temple offerings. Plumeria alba is the national flower of both Nicaragua and Laos.
Attractive as the flowers are in both appearance and scent, there is a down-side from the point of view of the gardener. As well as a deep and hard tap root, there are many lateral roots that spread along the surface of the ground, and these can disturb lawns.
The shedding of the leaves is quite a prolonged process, and anyone who likes a tidy garden will be raking up leaves every day for quite a few weeks. If the tree is badly affected by rust, the leaves can be quite unpleasant to handle. In spite of that, most residents wouldn’t be without a frangipani tree or two, and they are so easy to propagate – just stick a piece of a branch in the ground and it will grow.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2004-2015
Page last updated 25th January 2017