Gardens by Brendan: Glorious plumeria can be your legacy

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When I wed my sweet Irish colleen, Sandra, in Hawaii, after a short 10-year courtship, it seemed natural that Sandra would be adorned with the plumeria leis of Hawaiian fame. We were married on the beach, shoes off, beneath a blazing orange sky, with even more plumeria in full bloom adjacent to the beach.

I always remember landing in Honolulu, the airport filled with people assembling these flower leis of impressive colors and varying fragrances. The hotel we stayed at in Maui had a member of staff dedicated to sweeping up all the fallen blooms of plumeria from the pool area and the properties pathways. We marveled at the sheer abundance of these gorgeous flowers growing everywhere as we drove throughout the islands. Back then, we were living in Boston, and I often envied people living in the tropics who could grow plumeria at will in their gardens. Well, here we are in Naples, and are just blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful flowers.

Plumeria, commonly referred to as frangipani, is native to the tropics of the Caribbean, Central America and Venezuela, but now have far-reaching homes in Hawaii and many other tropical regions. Their fragrance is unmistakable. Their range in color is equally impressive, the delicate flowers born in white, yellow, pink, red and combinations of the same colors, called rainbows. However, it’s one of the easiest plants to grow. In fact, it’s possible to cut a stem from a tree and literally stick it into the ground. It will happily take root on its own, soon to become another plumeria tree.

In Ireland, we do a similar thing with willow. There is even an art form of creating intricate woven fences from live willow stems, which eventually take root and become the most unique hedge you’ve ever seen. I doubt one could do the same with plumeria, but try as you will.

I like plumeria even more because it has cultural requirements even a lazy gardener like me can get along with. It is happy to grow in a wide range of soil types, has a higher tolerance to drought and has low nutritional requirements. This deciduous tree can reach 20 feet tall, with a wide habit, enjoys the full sun and freely displays blossoms from February through November, when it loses its leaves. Make sure, if you decide to plant some, that you leave enough room for it to expand to a similar width to its mature height.

The Naples Botanical Gardens (NBG) have recently signed an agreement with the Plumeria Society of America (PSA) to host about 350 different cultivars of the popular plumeria. This collection will be among the most comprehensive in the world. What’s even better is that you can get involved to be part of this great legacy by participating in the world’s first public registered plumeria collection. For details on how to participate, please visit the PSA Web site to learn more about these great flowering plants at theplumeriasociety.org.

The best thing is that the safety of the collection will be ensured, as it will be within the NBG. This is significant, because if you donate a plumeria it will be there for generations to come. If she were alive today, Elizabeth Thornton, the founder of the PSA, would attest to the relevance of this safety benefit, because when she died, her family was faced with a dilemma; what were they to do with these magnificent trees on her property, which she had nurtured for so many years? Luckily, some of Elizabeth’s collection will now be secure here in the new gardens.

Here’s a brief of how you can become part of this collection. You can donate a “registered” plumeria to the PSA, which will be planted at the NBG with your name on the botanical label or sign that accompanies each plant. The PSA will provide a plaque such as this for each plant. NBG has already got about 85 different cultivars, and the collection is growing, managed by Carolyn Miller, curator of collections. If you wish to contact Carolyn about getting involved, she’ll welcome your e-mails at cmiller@naplesgarden.org.

Due to its many attributes, simple cultural requirements, vast array of colors and incredible fragrance, I definitely don’t think you’d be disappointed if you started a mini-collection of your own. It also is quite suitable for container planting and looks great in a courtyard, its fragrance magnified by the small confines of the space. Happy gardening.

Brendan Moran, the garden artist of Gardens By Brendan, designs gardens, writes and lectures in Southwest Florida, the U.S. and internationally, and lives in Naples. Visit GardensByBrendan.com, e-mail brendan@gardensby brendan.com or call 687-9337.

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