Waking Up the Frangipani

Frangipani in bloom is one of the iconic thrills of the tropics. In every color but blue, flowers emerge in large clusters month after month after month. No wonder the temptation is strong to grow frangipani in a container, enjoying it anywhere it can receive sufficient warmth and sun.


Plumeria cuttings making progress in rooting 091017 640 


But first it must come into leaf. And to come into leaf, the tree must be rooted-in and thriving. Frangipani is typically propagated from cuttings that, conveniently, can be shipped anywhere as leafless, rootless, dormant sections of stem. Convincing such a stem to wake up—to send out roots then foliage and, then, finally, to produce clusters of the luscious flowers—is anything but intuitive.


This past May, I purchased four cuttings from this Florida grower, which offers scores of cultivars. Frangipani is perhaps the rhododendron or rose of the tropics, hybridizing so readily that new forms seems to be brought to the marketplace yearly. I chose Hilo Beauty (deep brick red), Kaanapali (pink, rose, white, and yellow), Yellow Jack (white with strong yellow centers), Luau (striking red buds opening to bright yellow flowers).


Although four cuttings isn't a representative sample—let alone of four different cultivars, with just one cutting per cultivar—the difference in response nearly four months later is striking. Below, the full-sized new foliage of Yellow Jack.


Plumeria cutting emerging leaves 091017 640


Below to its left is Luau. All mature foliage of Plumeria rubra and its hybrids is more or less the same size; that the leaves of Yellow Jack are so much larger than those of Luau shows that Luau is only beginning to "awaken."


Plumeria Yellow Jack and Hilo Beauty 091017


But the still-drowsy wake-up of Luau—after four months of the most heat and light a summer in New England can muster—is way ahead of the three tips of the stem of Hilo Beauty: Only the right-most tip is producing even tentative new foliage, which is small and, seemingly, unable to progress even a month after emergence.


Plumeria cutting tentative first foliage 091017 640


The two tips of the Kaanapali cutting seem have shown even less change since May. Month after month, the new foliage that was present in its most nascent form when I received this cutting remains unchanged but, seemingly, as full of the promise of life as ever.


Plumeria cutting just pondering breaking dormancy 091017 640


Bringing cuttings of frangipani into vigorous vegetative growth is, clearly, somewhat of a victory in itself; now I understand first-hand why the grower's website provides supportive words for recipients such as me, who wait month after month for even modest activity.


Particularly challenging is that plumeria cuttings can't be encouraged to root by the normal step of attentive watering. Dormant stems are potted in completely dry soil, and then left alone in sun and heat for the cutting to awaken. Emergence of new foliage is the sign that roots are forming, and that modest hand watering might begin; trying to rush things along by watering is likely to induce only stem rot.


But lacking a greenhouse for use in the summer—I have use of one only October to early May—my plumeria cuttings have been outside all summer. There they receive all possible heat and sun—but also rain. I've compensated by planting in a medium that's particularly free-draining thanks to large proportions of perlite and sand.


Another complication is that cuttings of cultivars with dark red flowers are notably slower to awaken. This could explain the still-tentative response of Hilo Beauty, but not that of the yellow-and-white Kaanapali, which must just be individual variation.


As days shorten and temperatures cool, these potted cuttings will join the truckloads of my other tender plants that shelter in the greenhouse until May. Temperatures there routinely fall to fifty degrees at night and, so, all the cuttings are likely to drop their leaves (if any) and resume dormancy. This is typical for plumeria even in full-on tropics where temperatures might never fall below seventy and, actually, is a great assist to overwintering: dormant plumeria need neither sun nor water, and are far less likely to attract bugs, too. They are famous as easy keepers over the long spell in protective frost-free shelter from early fall to mid-spring.


It's highly unlikely, then, that my two laggards, Kaanapali and Hilo Beauty, will wake up at all in 2017. And yet they don't show signs of drying out or rotting, either. Soon, they'll join Yellow Jack and Luau in a warm but out-of-the-way spot on a greenhouse bench. Stay tuned for signs of life that may return to some or—can I hope?—all four of these cuttings anytime next year from March through June.



I'll profile frangipani when enough of these cuttings are well-established enough to bloom. Here's hoping this will be in the summer of 2018.

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