The Plumeria Frangipani is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and delightful plants grown in the world. The Mayans revered this fragrant tree for it was created by ‘akoch’, the father of the gods. From the flowers of the ‘bak nikt’’ were born the children of the supreme creator; these were the gods who watched over the Earth and the affairs of humanity. After the Spanish conquest, the Mayans added a son of the bak nikte’ -Hesuklistos (Jesus Christ), the god of foreigners. The Aztecs so admired the cacaloxochilt that it was punishable by death for a common person to pick or even stop to smell the flowers. The plumeria was the symbol of immortality for it was used medicinally as a stimulant and restorative.
There is an assumption that the Plumeria is from Hawaii. However, studies have shown that while the plant grows there it is not native. Frangipani (genus Plumeria) is originally native to Mesoamerica; and has been widely cultivated in subtropical climates worldwide. However today it is most widely recognized as associated with Hawaii, via the lovely leis. Its flowers are the ones used to form the colorful, tropical flower necklaces; every tourist to our 50th state wears during at least one beach party.
The Plumeria tree can grow to a height of around 30 feet. The young tree has green wood on the trunk and branches which become grayer as it matures. Branches are upright and rather crowded on the trunk forming a vase or umbrella shape with age. The shape of the leaves varies as per the different species of the Plumeria plant. Every species has its own distinct growth habits. On an average, the leaves tend to have a dull green shade but are glossy in texture. The width of the leaves may vary from 2-4 inches or 8-12 inches. The growth of the new leaves can be seen in the spring season. These plants expand poisonous, milky sap. However it is widely used in flower bouquets.
Frangipani flowers appear in clusters, also at the end of the branches, and are distinctively scented. The petals are waxy with the centre of the flower a different color to the rest. Many will bloom before developing leaves, others will not. Plumeria flowers have five petals, although flowers with four, six, seven or more petals are not uncommon. Some types of flowers do not fully open and are referred to as shell, semi-shell, or tulip like. Most flowers have a strong pleasant fragrance that is most intense during the early part of the day. Flowering can last up to 3 months at a time producing new blooms every day. Plumeria smells stronger in the night in order to attract insects for pollination… and she deceives them – seeking for nectar, they find nothing. The crafty Plumeria has no nectar, but virtuously mimics nectar-producing flowers. Poor pollinators go from flower to flower refusing to believe they are fooled, and she gets what she needs.
The genus, originally spelled Plumiera, is named in honor of the seventeenth-century French botanist Charles Plumier, who traveled to the New World documenting many plant and animal species. The common name “Frangipani” comes from an Italian noble family, a sixteenth-century Marquez of which invented a pluleria- perfume. Plumeria can be divided into two main groups, the obtusa and the rubra. Obtusa plumerias have rounded shiny leaves while the rubra have duller pointed leaves. Obtusa frangipani generally have white flowers and a strong fragrance while rubra have colorful flowers but less scent.
According to Steven Prowse, of Sacred Garden Plumeria’s, frangipanis arrived in Australia from South America via the Polynesian peoples who inter bred with the Melanesian peoples and established villages in the Melanesian region in what is now New Guinea. From there, frangipanis came to Australia via 2 routes.
The first was via the Torres Strait Islands which are between Australia and New Guinea and are less than a day’s paddle in a dugout canoe from either. The Torres Strait Islanders traded and interbred with both the New Guinea and Australian aboriginal peoples and brought the frangipani to both the Torres Straits and Australia. The islanders consider the frangipani a sacred plant.
The second and most important wave of frangipani introduction into Australia happened in the late 1800’s through to the 1920’s through Polynesian missionaries and, later, slaves. The missions were established in remote northern tropical regions of Australia by the Polynesian-based church missions who brought with them Polynesian and Melanesian Christians, coconuts and frangipanis. Most missions failed to survive long term in these disease, snake and crocodile-infested and cyclone-prone areas, and were abandoned. They eventually vanished into the tropical jungle with only the drought-hardy frangipanis surviving. Most of the more beautiful varieties of frangipani found in Australia were brought directly from Polynesia and Melanesia by these missionaries.
There is a theory that Catholic missionary priests spread frangipanis (Plumerias) around the world as they travelled. This may explain why the frangipani is so popular and common in the Philippines and Thailand but very rare in China and Vietnam. Thailand and the Philippines welcomed the Christian missionaries while, in China and Vietnam, they were persecuted until around the 1850s. The frangipani is the national tree of Laos, where it is called ‘dok jampa’. It is regarded as a sacred tree in Laos and every Buddhist temple in that country has them planted in their courtyards. Many of the trees are hundreds of years old and are spectacular, huge, gnarled giants.