Plumeria rubra

Common name: Red frangipani

Other common names: Caterpillar tree, Frangipani, Pagoda tree, Plumeria, Red paucipan, Red jasmine, Temple tree, Red temple tree

Names in non-English languages: French India Spanish China

Description

Red Frangipani is a flowering shrub or small tree originating in Central America, where it occurs in seasonally dry areas extending from Mexico to Panama.

It may reach heights of up to 12 m (40 ft), though is more commonly 3 to 7 m (10 to 23 ft) tall and develops a stout trunk, off of which grow spreading and ascending branches forming an umbrella-shaped crown, the width of which may equal the height of the plant. 

The stems have smooth grey bark and are semi-woody and succulent, storing moisture that allows the plant to survive through a long dry season. When wounded, they bleed a sticky white latex.

The leaves are elongated oval, 20 to 50 cm (0.7 to 1.6 ft) long, pointed at the tip, on top dull dark green and prominently ribbed, underneath pale green. They are spirally arranged at the ends of the branches and in the dry season fall off to conserve water, leaving the branches bare and exposed.

The flowers come in a variety of shapes and colours, due mostly to selective breeding but also as a result of natural cross-pollination with other compatible Plumeria species. In the main, they are fan- or pinwheel-shaped with five overlapping petals, measure 5 to 7.5 cm (2 to 3 in) across and come in reds, pinks, purples, oranges and whites, some with yellow centres. 

Flowering is long-day induced, the flowers coming into bloom from spring through autumn in showy clusters that arise at the very ends of the branches, strongly contrasting against the dark green of the leaves. They are followed by twin seedpods 12.5 to 25 cm (5 to 10 in) long, green when young becoming brown and dry when mature with largish winged seed inside, each up to 5 cm (2 in) long.

Use

It is widely cultivated as a flowering ornamental and specimen shrub, or small tree, for its distinctive and conspicuous candelabra shape, large lush green leaves and brightly coloured waxy flowers, their sweet fragrance an added bonus. The flowers are at their most fragrant in the evening and at night to attract moths, the plant's specialist pollinators, with very little if any fragrance exhaled during daylight hours. The plant's tolerance to drought, alkaline soils and salt spray make it a good candidate for seaside gardens.

The flowers resist wilt for longer than most tropical flowers and this has led to them being used in bouquets, as well as in floral necklaces such as garlands and traditional  Hawaiian leis. Their sweet fragrance, which persists long after they have fallen off the tree and dried, has also led to their use in clothing and linen cupboards to scent the clothes and sheets stored therein.

A fragrant waxlike substance, known as an essence concrète, is extracted from the flowers using a volatile solvent, usually hexane. This substance is then washed with alcohol before being concentrated into the essential oil known as 'Frangipani oil'. The oil gives off a strong and lingering rosy odour that finds use in fine perfumery, particularly heavy-Oriental floral perfumes such as 'Coco', 'Mystere' and 'Sweet Courrèges'.

Health use

The latex is used externally in traditional medicine to relieve itchy skin and to treat warts.

General interest

In some areas, large caterpillars known as the Frangipani caterpillar eat the leaves. They are up to 15 cm (6 in) long, charcoal black, ringed with up to ten yellow bands and have a bright red head. They take in the poison in the latex and themselves become poisonous, the birds knowing not to eat them. When ready to pupate, they head down the trunk to under the leaf litter and emerge later as Giant Sphinx Moths (Pseudosphinx tetrio) with wing spans of up to 14 cm (5.5 in).

Climate

Grows naturally in sub-humid to humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally in frost-free areas with annual lows of 17 to 25 °C, annual highs of 26 to 34 °C, annual rainfall of 500 to 2500 mm and a dry season of 9 months or less.

Growing

New plants can be started from seed or cuttings. Cutting are preferred because they readily and quickly root and the flower colour will be the same as the parent plant, which may not be the case in seed raised plants due to cross-pollination. Cuttings should be from 50 to 80 cm (1.6 to 2.6 ft) long and left for two weeks in the shade to dry, which improves their strike rate, or readiness to root. 

Performs best on free-draining loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to moderately alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.0 to 8.5 and on sites with full to partial sun exposure. It has good tolerance to limestone soils.

Problem features

Red frangipani is recorded as having escaped cultivation, as naturalised in many countries around the world and as a weed in Puerto Rico. However, there does not appear to be any record of it anywhere as a serious weed.

It is assessed as a low weed risk species for Hawaii and Florida, respectively by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA) and the IFAS Assessment of Non-Native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas.

The latex is very irritating to the skin of some people after prolonged contact and may cause burning and blistering. Taken internally it is a powerful laxative and in large amounts causes increased urination, diarrhoea and gastroenteric irritation.

Where it will grow

References

Books

  • Adams, C. D. 1972, Flowering plants of Jamaica, University of the West Indies, Mona, Greater Kingston

  • Arctander, S. 1960, Perfume and flavor materials of natural origin, Elizabeth, New Jersey

  • Barwick, M., et al. 2004, Tropical & subtropical trees : a worldwide encyclopaedic guide, Thames and Hudson, London

  • Dey, S.C. 1996, Fragrant flowers for homes and gardens, trade and industry, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, India

  • Editors of Sunset Magazine 2012, The New Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Gardening Guide, 9th edition, Sunset Publishing Corporation, California

  • Elevitch, C. R & Wilkinson, K. M. 2000, Agroforestry guides for Pacific Islands, 1st ed., Permanent Agriculture Resources, Holualoa, Hawaii

  • Genders, R. 1978, Scented flora of the world, Robert Hale Publishing, London & St. Martin's Press, New York

  • Gilman, E. F. 1997, Trees for urban and suburban landscapes, Delmar Publishers, Albany, New York

  • Groom, N. 1997, The new perfume handbook, 2nd ed., Blackie Academic & Professional, London

  • Krishen, P. 2006, Trees of Delhi : a field guide, Dorling Kindersley Publishers, Delhi

  • Macmillan, H. F. 1943, Tropical planting and gardening : with special reference to Ceylon, 5th ed, Macmillan Publishing, London

  • Menninger, E. A. 1962, Flowering trees of the world for tropics and warm climates, 1st ed., Heathside Press, New York

  • Oakman, H. 1995, Harry Oakman's what flowers when : the complete guide to flowering times in tropical and subtropical gardens, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland

  • Parrotta, J. A. 2001, Healing plants of peninsular India, CABI Publishing, Wallingford, Oxfordshire

  • Perkins, K. D. & Payne, W. 1981, Guide to the poisonous and irritant plants of Florida, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Gainesville, Florida

  • Perry, F. & Hay, R. 1982, A field guide to tropical and subtropical plants, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York

  • Randall, R. P. 2002, A global compendium of weeds, R.G. and F.J. Richardson Press, Melbourne

  • Randall, R. P. 2007, The introduced flora of Australia and its weed status, Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management, Glen Osmond, South Australia

  • Selvam, V. 2007, Trees and shrubs of the Maldives, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) RAP publication (Maldives), Thammada Press Company Ltd., Bangkok

Articles, Journals, Reports and Working Papers

  • Borchert, R., & Rivera, G. 2001, Photoperiodic control of seasonal development and dormancy in tropical stem-succulent trees, Tree Physiology 21.4 (2001): 213-221.

  • Johnson, A. & Johnson, S. 2006, Garden plants poisonous to people, New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI), Orange, New South Wales

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