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Plant of the Month for August 2014 – Plumeria Pudica

Updated: 
August 3, 2014 - 12:05am

You can count the number of plumeria cultivars on two hands … 10 times. With so much variety, you have many choices, depending on your taste and local availability. Since plumeria plants are so ubiquitous in West Hawaii, you might want to find something a bit rare and unusual in this genus to add to your collection or feature as a specimen in your garden.

Plumeria pudica would be a good choice in either case. It produces abundant striking white blossoms nearly year round without the usual strong plumeria fragrance. It also sports a glossy dark green unusually shaped leaf as an additional interesting element. The small tree can serve as part of a hedge or can be a featured specimen in a small garden. Pudica plumeria is also a good candidate for a container.

The botanical name of this member of the Apocynaceae or Dogbane family is often used as one of its common names, Plumeria pudica. It is also known as the Puerto Rican frangipani, bridal bouquet and fiddle leaf plumeria. One common name is a hint to its origin. It is native to the Caribbean Islands and parts of Venezuela. The other names refer to the lovely flower clusters as well as the leaf shape.

The genus Plumeria is named for the 17th century French botanist Charles Plumier. The name pudica originates from the Latin word pudicus which translates to bashful, modest or virtuous. Though this plant has many virtues its only bashful or modest quality would be its small size.

The tree grows quickly but rarely grows taller than 15 feet. It can be easily pruned to keep it smaller if desired. P. pudica has an upright growth habit with a slightly spreading crown that is covered in clusters of flowers year round. It will often produce several branches low on the trunk and take on the appearance of a shrub rather than a small tree. Judicious pruning can make the plant appear more tree-like though the profuse flowering will be affected if you reduce the number of branches.

This frangipani is often referred to as bridal bouquet because of the numerous clusters of flowers it produces that appear to be complete bouquets. They measure about 3 inches across with yellow throats and bright white petals that resemble the flowers of other members of the genus.

The leaves of this plumeria are distinctive and unlike others in the genus. They have a pointed tip and one or two lobes on each side of the leaves giving them the shape of a fiddle or a spatula. All varieties have glossy dark green leaves that do not usually drop except when temperatures go below 50 or in extremely dry conditions. These climatic conditions cause the plants to go into dormancy but they will not die unless the conditions continue unabated.

Pudica will occasionally produce dark pods filled with seeds. The seeds are not long lasting and should be removed and planted as soon as the pods dry. The small seeds can be tested by placing them between layers of damp paper towels to germinate. If the seeds do not sprout within two weeks, they are probably not viable.

This plant can also be propagated by cuttings, layering or grafting as well as micro techniques. Probably the easiest way to propagate any plumeria is from stem cuttings. Remove a branch of about 1 inch diameter and 6 or more inches long. Allow it to sit for a few days so that the milky sap dries and the stem end callouses.

Once the sap is dry you need to prepare a fast draining soil mix for your cutting. An effective mix can be made using about 1/3 damp soil, 1/3 wet sand and 1/3 perlite. This gives the cutting some support while allowing for maximum drainage. It is important to only water the cutting when the soil is very dry, about every 10 days in shady areas protected from rain. Your cuttings will rot if they don’t get a chance to dry out completely. Small leaves should appear within four to eight weeks. Once the cutting has three or four medium-size leaves you can increase water slightly. Plumeria do not like “wet feet” so be sure to let the soil dry out before you water again.

If you want to try grafting plumeria plants, you might want to check out splice and v-grafting techniques online. A video at plumeriatreasure.com takes you through splice grafting. V-grafting techniques are explained at graftingplumeria.com.

Whether you grow a new plant from a cutting or purchase it at a nursery, proper placement will help your plant thrive. P. pudica grows well in full sun even in hot lower elevation locations. It can do quite well in partial shade where conditions are very hot. It is important that you plant plumeria in soil that drains well. Though the plant must be watered when planted, it will need very little water once established. This plant will do well in a xeriscape garden as it is quite drought tolerant.

Fertilizing lightly will encourage flowering but the plant does not require frequent fertilization. Pruning is somewhat optional also and is usually only needed to control the size or shape of the plant. Another attractive feature of this species is its seeming resistance to diseases and insect attacks. Though mealy bugs will occasionally attack a plant if it is not healthy, rust diseases that are common to plumeria do not seem to affect this particular species.

Sunrise Nursery in Kailua-Kona currently has several P. pudica in large pots. Other nurseries may have some or be able to get them for you by request. Call around to find them.

Consider P. pudica if you want an ever-flowering striking border plant, an interesting specimen or a lovely lei plant without the heavy fragrance. It can make a wonderful addition to your garden or it can grace an indoor or lanai location well. This plant has many advantages which is probably why it is currently increasing in popularity among landscape designers in West Hawaii.­­

Diana Duff is an organic farmer as well as a plant adviser and consultant.