Sunday, January 8, 2017

Plant Story--Fragrant Plumeria, Frangipani, Temple Tree

I first saw it in Costa Rica in 1972. A beautiful plant with spiral white flowers and an enticing scent. Plumeria the biologists told me.

wild frangipani, Costa Rica 1973
wild frangipani, Costa Rica 1973
Several days later someone called it frangipani and I connected the little bottle from the New Age store with the beautiful flower.

But it is true. One common name for species of Plumeria is frangipani and it is the source of what I thought of as a rather cloying essential oil. I like the scent of the flowers much better. If you've never smelled a frangipani flower, you've missed a treat!

I can't share the fragrance here, but its a lovely flower: those I can share.

There are about nine species of Plumeria. Native to Central America, they have been in cultivation long enough that there are many varieties and the relationships are confused. (link: look at all the flower colors!) Plumeria is in the dogbane family, Apocynaceae. The dogbane family is huge, with more than 4,500 species, mainly tropical and subtropical. Many, including the plumerias, are quite toxic if eaten. You can read online that the flowers are edible (link) and not edible (link). The leaves and stems are certainly poisonous, although they are used in herbal medicine, for example as a laxative. Hawaii's Poisonous Plants states that although they aren't very toxic, people have become sick from eating plumeria salads. Eat plumeria flowers in moderation.

Some plumeria species, for example the red Plumeria rubra group including its white varieties, are deciduous, dropping their leaves for part of the year. They are native to hot dry regions of Mexico and Central America where dry season survival was enhanced by leaflessness. Others, the white P. obtusa, for example, are evergreen, keeping their leaves throughout the year and replacing them only as needed, not seasonally. Plumeria obtusa is native to the Bahamas and Greater Antilles in the Caribbean, where the dry season is not as sustained as in western Mexico.

Plumeria rubra is the national flower of Nicaragua, where is called sacuanjoche.

The fragrance is stronger at night and in its native range plumeria is pollinated by large moths. Actually, it cheats the moths because the big flowers don't produce any nectar (sugar water) to feed the moths. Moths come, probe the flowers for nectar to drink, get pollen stuck on their long tongues, then fly on to check out a different plumeria flower, pollinating the flowers as the moths search for nectar. That produces successful pollination for the plant but the moth goes away still hungry.

The scientific name Plumeria honors the French botanist Charles Plumier (1646-1704, biography). who collected the plant for western science in the late 1600s. In Hawaii, where they are very abundant, the plant is usually called plumeria. In the Americas and Australia you'll probably hear the name frangipani. Frangipani is an old and important Italian name, apparently given to plumeria because the flowers smelled like the frangipani perfume. Checking the details of the frangipani story turned into a project that I will describe in the next week's post (link). In Asia plumeria is variously called the Indian temple tree, Champa tree, Singapore graveyard tree, and West Indian jasmine, and many other things in the local languages.

Precolumbian uses of plumeria are reported in The Badianus Manuscript, a Spanish compilation of Aztec lore. There the plant, called cacaloxochitl, which means raven flower, appears in a lotion to ease the fatigue of tired administrators, a lotion for skin eruptions and in a complex potion to encourage a timid person. In addition, the Aztecs wore plumeria flowers as hair ornaments and added them to offerings to the gods. Friar Bernadino de Sahagun wrote, "These flowers were in ancient times reserved for the lords"(in Badianus p. 309).

Carried around the world more than 400 years ago, plumeria is thoroughly integrated into local cultures in the African and Asian tropics. People from equatorial Africa to India to southern China don't realize the plant came from the Americas, likely in the 1500s.

It is the national tree of Laos where it is called dok jampa.

Plumeria is a symbol of immortality in Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism because it will continue to produce flowers and leaves from a cut branch or long after being uprooted. In India and much of southeast Asia, a plumeria tree grows in virtually every temple and graveyard.

The Indians tell of a Frenchman who searched for wealth. He was advised to seek a tree that grew in temples, with flowers the color of the moon and a heavenly fragrance. Consequently, he entered a south Indian temple at midnight under a full moon. The scent was intense and wonderful. He shook the tree, hoping for gold, perhaps gold coins. Instead, flowers fell, glistening in the moonlight. Their beauty, the lovely night, and the exquisite fragrance turned his thoughts to god. He realized then what were life's true wealth--sweet flowers, moonlight under the infinite sky, scent that stirred the soul--and gave up his search for earthly riches.

All across tropical Asia, herbal medicine has also embraced plumeria, using it to treat a variety ills, including diabetes, constipation, asthma and more. There is currently intense research to see if these traditional uses offer products for modern medicine.

Plumeria arrived in Hawaii in the 1800s and and quickly became part of the Hawaiian floral traditions. Plumerias are the flower of choice for leis.

Notice fragrant plumeria as you travel the tropics.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Baldwin, R. E. 1979. Hawaii's poisonous plants. The Petroglyph Press, Hilo, HI.
Emmart, E. W. 1940. The Badianus manuscript. (Code Barberinia, Latin 241) Vatican Library. An Aztec Herbal of 1552. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
Gupta, S. M. 1996. Plants in Indian temple art. D. K. Publishers. Delhi, India.
Haber, W. A. 1984. Pollination by deceit in a mass-flowering tropical tree Plumeria rubra L. (Apocynaceae). Biotropica 16 (4): 269-275.
Kapoor, J. Under the spell of plumeria in Chandigarh. The Indian Express July 3, 2016.  link
National Tropical Botanic Garden Plumeria obtusa  Plumeria rubra

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist


  1. Poor moths!

    I planned on buying a cutting of plumeria awhile back, but there were so many different varieties, I couldn't make up my mind. There's some wild, multi-colored and spotted ones. Plain white is nice, or white with star shaped petals. Too many choices!