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: Philippines French India Spanish China


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

It may reach heights of up to 12 m (40 ft), though it is more commonly 3 to 7 m (10 to 23 ft) tall and develops a stout trunk, which grows 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.

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 to conserve water, leaving the branches bare and exposed.

The flowers come in various shapes and colours, due mainly to selective breeding and 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, with the flowers coming into bloom from spring through autumn, in showy clusters arising at the ends of the branches, strongly contrasting 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 and with large winged seed inside, each up to 5 cm (2 in) long.

Frangipani flowers (Bali, Indonesia)

Coconut cocktail (photo by Manuel Willer from Pixabay)


Red frangipani 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 makes it a good candidate for seaside gardens.

The flowers resist wilt for longer than most tropical flowers, which has led to their use in bouquets and 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 in traditional medicine as a topical treatment for itchy skin and to treat warts.

General interest

Large caterpillars, known as the 'Frangipani Caterpillar', eat the leaves in some areas. They can be up to 15 cm (6 in) long with a bright red head and a charcoal black body ringed with up to ten yellow bands. 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 wingspans of up to 14 cm (5.5 in).


Grows naturally in sub-humid to humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally in frost-free areas with annual lows of 11 to 25°C, annual highs of 22 to 37°C, annual rainfall of 400 to 3500 mm and a dry season of 9 months or less.


New plants are started from seed or cuttings. Cuttings are preferred because they readily and quickly strike root. 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 and 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 some people's skin after prolonged contact and may cause burning and blistering. Taken internally, it is a powerful laxative and can cause increased urination, diarrhoea, and gastroenteric irritation in large amounts.

Where it grows

With irrigation or groundwater



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