All About Plumerias

Considering the millions of plumeria leis that greet visitors to the Hawaiian Islands each year, you might assume that the plumeria is native to Hawaii but it is not. Back in the 1600s, French botanist Charles Plumier first identified and cataloged the plumeria plant that he found growing in the Caribbean Islands, and, as was the custom, it was named in his honor. Subsequent explorations found plumeria species native to the tropical regions of Central America from Mexico to Venezuela. Because the plumeria is such a desirable plant, its cultivation has spread to all tropical areas of the globe.

 

Plumerias, sometimes called frangipani, are considered shrubs or small trees, and some varieties, untamed by a pruner’s blade, may grow tall enough to top the roof of your house. Other varieties, with a smaller and more compact growth habit, will thrive in a container. The large rich green leaves provide a perfect foil for the colorful clusters of flowers that bloom from May until October. Individual flowers are usually 3 to 5 inches across, and the petal shape may be rounded, pointed or even arranged in an overlapping whirl resembling a shell. Blossom colors range from white to yellow, peach and coral, and pink in every shade, up to dark wine red. Some blossoms are a mixture of several colors. With fragrances reminiscent of fruit like berries or citrus, pungent like exotic spices, sweet like a rose, or rich like jasmine or gardenias, there’s a scent to put a smile on the face of every flower-sniffer.

 

Cultivation

 

Although the plumeria is considered a tropical plant, gardeners in subtropical climates such as Southern California have found that the plant will thrive in their gardens when protected from rare winter freezes. Most garden plumerias are deciduous here, so they tolerate lower temperatures better than many other tropical plants. Choose a garden site that gets some afternoon shade if you live in an inland location, but if you live closer to the coast, full sun is better. Plumerias grow well in most ordinary garden soils as long as they are very well-drained and the plants are not overwatered. In fact, the plants are considered drought-tolerant once they are established. If you choose to keep your plumeria in a pot, a very well-draining artificial soil mix, such as one formulated for cactus and succulents, is best. 

 

During the growing season, whether growing in the ground or in a pot, wait until the soil has started to dry out before watering, and then water thoroughly. Use a balanced plant fertilizer on a regular basis from spring until fall, but be sure to stop as fall approaches to avoid promoting tender new growth that would be especially cold-sensitive. Young plants may require more protection from frost during their first winter than an established plant. Regardless of age, plumerias require very little water during the winter; give them just enough to keep the branches from shriveling. When spring arrives, begin fertilization and increase watering. Before long, the colorful, fragrant flowers of your plumeria plant will be ready to fill your garden with color and fragrance.

 

Propagation

 

Although the plumeria can be a rather expensive plant to buy, it is a surprisingly easy plant to propagate from cuttings. Plumeria cuttings will root best when the temperature is at least 60 degrees, so spring to summer is a good time to make your cuttings. Simply cut piece of a branch 12-18 inches long. The cutting may be a single length or branched, with the branched cuttings likely to make the bushiest plants.

You will find that a milky sap will immediately start dripping from the cut surfaces. Avoid getting it on your skin as some people are sensitive to it and may develop a rash. Allow the cut ends of the branches to dry in a cool shady location for at least a few days or even a few weeks. This drying time drastically reduces the chance of rot occurring.

 

Remove all but the top few small leaves from the cuttings (they will drop off eventually anyway). If you are making multiple cuttings from one very long branch, be sure to keep track of which end is up. There is no need to use a rooting hormone. Plant each cutting about 3 inches deep in a 1-gallon or larger pot filled with artificial soil mix for cactus. If you can’t find cactus mix, a general-purpose mix with about an equal volume of perlite or vermiculite works well too.

 

Place the pots in a bright location but avoid direct sun, and keep the soil lightly moist. Depending upon the time of year, rooting will take one to three months. Once the cuttings develop roots you will notice top growth beginning, and you can gradually move the new plants to a location with brighter light and increase watering.

New varieties of plumeria are developed every year but many varieties such as Slaughter Pink and Donald Angus have been around for decades and are just as desirable as ever. The internet is filled with pictures of enticing varieties available for sale from all over the country, but I recommend shopping locally to ensure that the plants you select are known to grow well in our climate.

 

A visit to a nursery that specializes in plumerias, such as Plumerias By The Sea in Cardiff Ca, may be a bit overwhelming at first, but the staff is extremely knowledgeable and can help you select the perfect plumeria for you. I’ve found that once gardeners discover what a great plant the plumeria is, they want another and yet another until their garden is a rainbow of fragrant blossoms.

 

Ottillia “Toots” Bier has been a UC Cooperative Extension master gardener since 1980. Send comments and questions to features@pe.com.

 

Pruning Guidelines

Taken from a presentation by Ron Killian at the February 2009 Southern California Plumeria Society Meeting

 

Ron prunes when the growth habit of a plant forces him to. For example, a Jeannie Moragne Plumeria is often a tall, single stalk. To demonstrate his techniques, Ron brought a Mary Nicholson Plumeria, a white that flowers all year. The plant he brought was getting too heavy on one side and would require extensive staking.

When talking cuttings, longer is better. Shorter cuttings have less energy and are therefore more difficult to root. Danny Kashou interjected that taking a cutting can encourage a plant to branch in an area where the tree hasn’t branched before if five to six inches are left on the plant. Ron stressed that people need to consider the time of year before cutting to stimulate branches. Early in the season, odds are better for the plant to branch; later in the year, the plant may not have enough energy.

Be sure not to create any recesses on the plants that will collect water. After making cuts, seal cuts with lime paste or DAP, available at home improvement stores. Bud Guillot uses plumeria blossoms to seal cuts, pressed firmly over the cut.

Repotting Instructions

Then Ron demonstrated repotting on a Penang Peach. First, he turned the pot upside-down and removed the plant. He pulled all the soil off to expose the roots. At home, he would hose the roots with a fine, hard spray to wash all the soil off the roots. Ron uses scissors to root prune his plants. This removes any poor roots, spurs new growth, and allows him to keep a plant in the same size pot.

Then he placed the plant in the pot and filled the pot with well-draining soil, specifically Kellog’s garden soil.

Q&A with Ron

Q. Does Ron sterilize the blade between cuts?
A. Ron uses 91% alcohol to sterilize the blade between plants, not cuts. Ron asked if anyone’s plants had rust. One person had rust on a grafted plant from Florida. When he pulled off the leaves, the rust didn’t come back.

Q. When a cutting has no obvious root or tip end, how can you tell which way to plant it?
A. Plumeria only grow one way. The leaf scars smile when the plant is upright.

Q. What is the minimum length for a cutting?
A. The longer the better, but Ron likes a minimum of 14-15″.

Q. Does Ron seal his cuttings with Rootone?
A. When Ron uses Rootone to seal cuttings, he waits one week before planting. When he seals them with lime paste, he plants them the next day.

Q. How much is Ron taking off the roots?
A. Ron only takes the bad stuff off. When the tips are skinny and the leaf scars are close together, check the roots for damage and repot the plant.

Q. What if the bad roots are close to the base of the plant?
A. Spray away as much decayed stuff as possible. Add Rootone to the affected areas that can’t be removed. As a fungicide, Rootone generally stops problems.

Q. Does Ron add newspaper or coffee filters to the bottom of his pots?
A. No, Kellogg’s is a large-bodied soil.

Q. Where can you buy Kellogg’s garden soil?
A. Home Depot, in large 3.5 cubic foot bags.

Q. How often does Ron repot?
A. Every six weeks.

Q. With the cuttings rooted in sleeves, how deep should they be planted once rooted?
A. Three to four inches at least in pot, enough to make the plant stable. Be careful not to crush the roots when planting.

Q. Does Ron repot year-round?
A. Ron never stops. But he thinks plants do best in the ground and uses pots to root them.

Q. How long can a cutting sit before you plant it?
A. Ron lets his cuttings without lime paste sit for ten days before planting them, but after that, they can go a long time, three months, before planting.

Q. When is a good time to prune?
A. For cuttings, after March 1st.

Q. Can you prune during dormancy?
A. If you must, seal the cuts very well, since the risk of freeze damage is bigger.

Q. When is the best time to transplant plants that are in the ground?
A.
March, April, May–early in season, but past frost.