As I move around Adelaide, it is easy to see that there was a wave of enthusiasm for the cream-flowering frangipani among home gardeners a few decades ago, judging by the maturity of the plants. There is probably an interesting bit of social history surrounding this patchy trend in Adelaide’s suburbs.
Growing up in Melbourne, I had few frangipanis to enjoy. A memorable specimen prospered in a north-facing front yard on High Street near Punt Road in Prahran and of course frangipani leis were prominent in any post-war Saturday afternoon movie set in the Pacific.
However, I really took notice of frangipanis typical of wet forests in Asia and the Pacific rather than dry forests in Central America. (My best, but rather weak, defence is that this was some years ago). I was confronted by a completely new image – Central American frangipanis growing with columnar cacti such as Cephalocereus columna-tranjani – the tall unbranched cactus whose specific name compares the tall white succulent stems with the columns of a Roman temple. Imagine the landscape – dry stony hillsides dominated in frangipani and cacti resembling marble columns! (And no, I hadn’t even tried the peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii growing in the same region).
Planting enthusiasts can be a clannish lot. Interestingly, neither cactus and succulentophiles nor Plumerians (as frangipani enthusiasts call themselves) seem to encourage commerce with each other. From my perspective, the succulent stem of the frangipani identifies both the common frangipani (Plumeria rubra) and the other species I’ve met as true stem succulents. However, it seems that neither coterie particularly wants to be associated with the other.
Frangipani flowers are quite beautiful. The flowers are displayed elegantly on a succulent dichotomously branching stems resulting in a shrub or tree with a regular (read ‘tidy’) crown, although the naked winter breaches have their detractors. The scent is heavenly. In fact the scent is what we most often associate with frangipanis and, most often, the reason why we might want to grow them.
The flower shape and scent are deliberate deceptions aimed at hawkmoths. We know they attract hawkmoths because researchers have recovered the pollen from the tongues of seventeen species of hawkmoth in Costa Rican forests. The frangipani’s botanical name is Plumeria, named for Charles Plumier, a French botanist and Franciscan monk who make three expeditions to the Caribbean in the 1690s and discovered Plumeria for Science. Plumeria was named by his mentor French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and the name was retained by Linnaeus in his binomial system. Plumeria rubra is the common frangipani in cultivation,. However, significant hybridisation amongst a range of Plumeria species has produced some of the astonishing cultivars available today.
The common name of frangipani might also be a fraud. The usual explanation is that frangipani was named as the scent evoked a comparison with a 16th-century almond perfume created by the Italian Marquis Frangipani to perfume gloves. The alternative explanation suggests the sap reminded French settlers in the Caribbean of curdled milk – hardly a great marketing image and hardly a convincing etymology. Nevertheless I’d still be surprised if the West Indies offered an opportunity to compare flower and glove perfumes, but who knows?
A better explanation unearthed by one of my multi-talented colleagues – one who is not a botanist – is from frangipane, the name variously applied to a traditional French pastry and to its almond-meal and butter-cream filling, often intensified with almost essence. The Galette des rois – the cake that is still part of the celebration of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night – is a frangipane. This name does not appear to reflect the search for a dessert capturing the perfume introduced by the Marquis Frangipani.
Frangipani is in the plant family Apocynaceae which includes Oleander, Allamanda, and Mandevilla and the succulent genera Adenium and Pachypodium. Indeed, if you accept recent botanical research subsuming the Asclepiadeceae into the Apocynaceae, you can add to the immediate family Hoya and Stephanotis – as well as the Stapeliads (true stem succulents with bizarre starfish-like flowers that utilise a really unpleasant carrion scent to attract blowflies). There’s plenty of room in the family for both succulentophiles and Plumerians!
The gist of this is of course that frangipanis are gorgeous and worth growing. You need at least six hours of full sun and good drainage. At risk of offending Plumerians again, think of frangipanis in the same way as cacti. Frangipanis don’t like frost (so you might pot them and bring them inside for winter).
Frangipanis are easy to propagate if you can find the material you voet. However, if you take the time to look at a website such as Steven Prowse’s astonishing collection (sacredgardenfrangipanis.com) or Mike (DJ) Earnshaw’s marvelous nursery (djsway.com) – you’re most likely to covet material you can’t find, ranging from unimagined colours to links to mission settlements in the Pacific and Australia! However, you can order these plants online or through your local nursery. I’m sorely tempted.
If you do find what you want in someone’s garden it’s desirable to ask before you take a cutting because it needs to be about 30cm long (or even a metre if you can get away with it). Do it in Spring, allow the cutting to dry out for a week, and then plant directly into the ground or into pots of sand or propagating mix. Water sparingly until roots develop. Seeds, grafting and air-layering can wait until you’ve become obsessed.
You can join the American Plumeria Society here. There are links here to the Australian society although the website here is in its early days.
If you can’t bring yourself to consider exotic frangipani, the unrelated native frangipani Hymenosporum flavum has a completely different habitat but does have a wonderful scent and is equally prepared to prosper in tough condition.
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 15 February 2008.