By Barbara Fahs, Garden Guides Contributor
Also called frangipani, plumeria is a tropical to sub-tropical shrub or small tree that produces delightfully scented flowers, often used in leis. On many Pacific islands, women wear a plumeria flower over their right ears if they are unmarried and hoping for a relationship. Happily married women wear the flowers over their left ears. The Apocynaceae genus includes only 7 or 8 species of plumeria, which are native to the tropical parts of Central and South America.
Unless you live in a place that never gets frost, you'll want to grow your plumeria in a pot that can be moved indoors during the fall and winter months. For containers, use a coarse, well-draining potting soil because plumerias do not care for "wet feet." Cactus mix is a good choice.
Plumerias are prized for their flowers, which range from white to yellow to pink to red, with some varieties having beautiful two-tone blossoms. The tree has odd, almost prehistoric-looking branches with broad, leathery leaves. Some varieties are winter deciduous, even in tropical locations. In Mexico, the ancient Aztecs used plumeria flowers for many medicinal purposes and often made them into a salve or lotion.
Choosing a Variety
Plumeria alba, or white plumeria, is the most fragrant and readily available variety. If you live in Southern California, Florida or Hawai'i, local nurseries usually carry a couple of varieties. In cooler climates, you might need to order starter plants from a specialty catalog. When you vacation in Hawai'i, you will find plumeria cuttings for sale at the airports. These are easy to start after you arrive home: just put them in potting soil with Perlite added and keep them evenly moist.
For branch cuttings, measure and mark 4 inches from the bottom. Fill a pot with equal amounts of potting soil and Perlite. Rooting hormone helps the cutting to sprout: first dip your cutting into water, and then into the powdered hormone. Insert the cutting into your pot until the line you drew is even with the soil surface. Fill the pot with pea gravel and then press it and firm it down. Water it well and then put your pot in a warm, sunny spot. Overwatering can cause the cutting to rot, so only add water about once a week.
After your cutting has a good root system, transplant it to a larger pot or outdoors if you live in a warm climate zone. In the spring, when new growth begins to emerge, feed with a high nitrogen fertilizer. In May, switch to a high phosphorus fertilizer to encourage blooming. Plumeria rarely need pruning, but if you do prune, the fleshy branches can be rooted for additional plants.