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Diggin' Florida Dirt: Say 'Aloha' to summer-blooming plumeria

The Singapore variety tolerates Florida’s summer rains well. It also has a lovely fragrance.
The Singapore variety tolerates Florida’s summer rains well. It also has a lovely fragrance.
Published Jul. 22, 2016

Widening the path through our garage a couple weeks ago, I found a tree limb. Where'd that come from? Our garage holds ancient typewriters, displaced toilets (plumber husband), and pots and pans unworthy of the kitchen but too good to toss. I get that. But a 3-foot branch?

I spotted tiny green sprouts on the forked tips and remembered. More than a year ago, I got cuttings at a plumeria pruning party and left my take-homes in the garage because I knew they'd be fine until I was ready to plant them. Plumeria forgive so readily.

Known to many gardeners as frangipani, you can find this smallish, fragrant-blossomed tree in all the colors of a sunrise. Some exude a sweet perfume, others not so much. Famed for their use in Hawaiian leis, they actually hail from Central and South America, according to experts' best guesses. They don't like the cold, but other than that, they're almost bulletproof.

Not in my garden.

Big summer bloomers, plumeria thrive on neglect, sun, sandy soil and lack of irrigation — all of which I have. But I've killed too many to count, so before planting that branch, I talked to Alan Bunch, owner of The Exotic Plumeria in Seffner.

"The death knell for plumeria is really cold weather," says the Hillsborough County native and former CFO for Eckerd College.

Some of mine succumbed to freezes, and Alan has a couple of easy fixes for that. But cold alone didn't kill my pass-along plumeria. As I learned from Alan, simple bad genes may have been to blame, too.

A longtime accountant, Alan discovered the trees on a visit to Hawaii in 1989. "I smelled one and just about went crazy," he says.

When he came home, he couldn't find them in local nurseries, so when he returned to Hawaii, he brought home cuttings. Over the years, he returned again and again, visited other countries, and criss-crossed Florida in search of new varieties.

"It became an obsession," he says.

He's been in business full time since 1998 and he's as passionate as ever about his favorite plant. He's shot and saved more than 20,000 photos on external hard drives and self-published a coffee-table book, The Exotic Plumeria. Volume 2 is in the works.

Now's a great time to plant plumeria cuttings, he says. They grow quickly this time of year because of the longer days and heat. Plant in the sun, don't overwater, and allow enough space for them to get 25 feet tall and 25 feet wide. If you rely on pruning to keep the tree small, you'll get far fewer flowers.

Alan shares these other tips for sweet success:

Buy name brands

Sellers of cuttings — usually foot-long sections of branches with no blooms — and rooted plants should be able to tell you the variety's name and the bloom color. If they can't, the cuttings likely come from less hearty wild-harvested plants.

"Named cultivars are bred for superior characteristics," Alan says. "If you're paying $4-$5, you can't have expectations. If you're paying $30 to $40, it should be from a seller you can go back to if you have problems."

Alan particularly likes Singapore, Plumeria obtusa, which takes longer to root but has harder wood and dark, glossy leaves, and tolerates Florida's summer rains well. It also has a heavenly fragrance.

"Once you smell it, you never forget it," he says.

Cuddle when it's cold

You can dig up smaller trees, wrap the roots in newspaper and move them to the garage or another enclosed space if you live where it freezes during the winter. Then just replant it in the spring. Plumeria in pots will be well-protected if you simply move them under a tree canopy

It's not dead — it's deciduous!

Plumeria usually lose leaves in late fall in Central Florida, although some may forget or be tricked by a warm winter. If your plumeria drops its leaves in winter, it's likely just going dormant. Relax!

Or, it could be plumeria rust — a fungus.

Plumeria rust, Coleosporium plumeriae, first shows up as powdery orange patches on the undersides of leaves, usually in September and October, when it's hot and humid but not rainy. Eventually, leaves turn yellow and die, though the tree will survive.

Bag up and dispose of dropped and infected leaves to prevent spreading. When it's hot and humid but not rainy, spray the trees down every few days to wash away spores.

Alan also recommends spraying with Bayer Advanced Disease Control for Roses, Flowers & Shrubs to prevent rust.

• • •

There's lots to love about plumeria, Alan says.

"They have an abundance of color, abundance of fragrance and a shortage of maintenance," he says. "I sit out on my screened porch and look out at acres of them and breathe their perfume. I can tell you which one is which variety, almost every one — from a distance."

Contact Penny Carnathan at pcarnathan49@gmail.com; visit her blog, digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin' Florida Dirt; and follow @DigginPenny.