Ugly sticks, shorter than a ruler, lay on a co-worker's desk a few years ago. "Would you like one?" she asked. For what, I wondered, staring at them. She handed one to me.
"Stick it in a pot with soil, do nothing for two weeks, then water."
I'm no Jack and this was no beanstalk, but there's a remarkable magic in growing plumeria.
I did as told, and my stick today is now a splendid 7-foot-tall, multibranched plumeria tree whose waxy white blooms with pale yellow centers never fail to overcome me.
Sure, roses smell great. Gardenias, too. And orange blossoms. But a plumeria doesn't smell. Its exotic perfume intoxicates.
Mine is likely Plumeria obtusa 'Singapore.' Expert grower Alan Bunch describes mine well, yet he has never seen it. Doesn't have to. "There's a wonderful scent in the air, and this particular cultivar's fragrance, so intoxicating even far from the tree, with two or three flower clusters on each branch, is an absolutely haunting fragrance."
At Exotic Plumeria, Bunch's 4 1/2-acre retail nursery in Seffner, east of Tampa, 10,000 plants grow in pots and in the ground. The largest, perhaps 12 feet tall with a 16- to 18-foot canopy, cost $2,000 and up. Beginners can pick up a 3-gallon plumeria for $30. All are identified, even by fragrance, among the 250 cultivars at the nursery. And chocolate, citrus, coconut and cherry Kool-Aid only begin to describe the scents, Bunch said.
Ultimately, the intensity of a plumeria's fragrance is as difficult as describing the essence of the perfume my mother gently dabbed behind her ears before a night on the town. Chanel No. 5. Indescribable but hauntingly memorable. I recall it now, decades later. And when I greet my plumeria with my daughter, I know, too, she'll remember its perfume.
"It's transforming," Bunch said.
Planting and care
Frangipani, the common name for the genus Plumeria, needs adequate water, but more important, full sun. Rust fungus is to plumeria as black spot is to roses, said Greg Charles, better known to St. Petersburg Times readers as "Dr. Hort," whose column runs in HomeLink. Rust fungus thrives because of our humidity and rainy season, so full sun dries the thick, glossy leaves, reducing fungal attack.
If leaves yellow and fall off, look for bright yellow or orange spores under the leaves. Remove infected leaves, including those on the ground, and discard in the trash. Treat healthy leaves with a fungicide. Fertilizer application should use less nitrogen, as it causes plumeria to grow but pushes it past its flower cycle. Try a formulation of 8-2-12 or 4-6-8, Charles advised.
If you pick up a stick, or cane, from an outdoor market, or if a neighbor shares, let it dry for a few days. Then stick it in a small pot with soil. Do not water for 10 days to two weeks. Start watering and after stems and leaves pop out, you can transplant to a larger pot or into the ground.
Plumeria tolerates temperatures to 32 degrees, but below that leaves will drop. Below 22 degrees, stem damage occurs.
Mimi Andelman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8272.