Frangipani: Stuff of Legend and Romance

By Neil Case

The Bali Times

SANUR ~ I have been coming to the same little homestay in Sanur for years. The faithful staff have become friends, and for me it is an oasis of peace and tranquility.  All units face onto a small but delightful courtyard garden dominated by two mature frangipani trees (Plumeria acuminata).

On the calmest of days, a continuous gentle rain of white blossoms falls. A tiny breeze generates a flurry of falling flowers.  After a rainstorm, the grass and paving is carpeted with white. Wonder of wonders, there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of new blossom.

P. acuminata is the original species and in both its white and pink forms possesses the strongest perfume. Although it plays such a prominent role in Balinese daily life, is a vital component of canang (offerings to the gods) and temple ritual, frangipani is not native to Southeast Asia.

Its botanical name comes from its discoverer (during the reign of the Sun King) – a French botanist by name OF Charles Plumier. It is native to tropical Central and South America. The plant was brought to Southeast Asia by the Spanish via the Philippines.

It is now grown widely throughout the world in tropical, sub-tropical and even temperate climates (if a suitable “micro-climate” exists). It has become the quintessential symbol of Tropical Paradise, and never more so than here in Bali.

Over the years, there have been many new colors bred by hybridists – bright yellows, vivid reds, a plethora of pinks, bi-colors and multi-colors. Apart from color breaks, blossom size has been a prime target.

Another species, P. obtuse, naturally has larger flowers. This species and its hybrids are easily identifiable by the rounded ends to the club-shaped, darker green leaves. P. acuminata has more elongated, pointed leaves.

The reds in particular seem to have been devoid of perfume and I have seen a large range of red flowers – from deep beet red (unattractive) through to blazing scarlet. Hybridists however are a restless lot: always seeking to improve their creations. Walking along Jl. Tamblingan a few days ago, I spotted a large red blossom lying on the pavement. From its large size, I knew it to be an obtusa hybrid.

A very attractive blossom – bright cherry red with not only a golden throat, but streaks of gold in the red petals, running almost to their edges – I subjected it to the nose test. Yes! It did posses the archetypal fragrance.  Not as strong as the species, but distinctly there.

Common names can be very confusing. There are several common names in Indonesia – Bunga Jepun (Japanese flower), Bunga Kamboja (Cambodian flower) and in Muslim areas Bunga Kuburan (Cemetery flower, because it is always grown in their cemeteries).

The most widely used common name in the West is Frangipani. This from a supposed resemblance to the French crème frangipane (vanilla custard pastry cream) in appearance and aroma.

Plumeria are easy to grow; even larger branches will take root and flourish. As the sap is latex-like, a few days in the shade to callus the cut end improves the strike rate and guards against stem rot.

They are very hardy. I have seen twisted, ancient trees lying on the ground, yet still producing leaves and flowers. They are affected by cushiony scale (white, fluffy dots) and ordinary scale (hard black or brown dots).  Yellow rust is another problem. Sometimes a black film develops on the leaves (sooty mould).  This is a secondary infection from the honeydew secreted by the scale insects and disappears when the scale is killed.

Treatment is simple. As scale is a sap-sucker, bore a downward-slanting hole into the trunk and fill it with 5-10ml of systemic insecticide (Dimethoate – Rogor), neat from the bottle. Seal the hole with a small cork, a wad of Blu Tak, even used chewing gum will do. The sap stream transports the insecticide throughout the entire plant.

Rust responds to sulfur and there are local soaps which contain 10 percent sulfur. Prepare a double whammy! Over an outside fire (so you don’t stink up the house), boil up one liter of kerosene with 5 liters of water plus 10 tablets of sulfur soap. Allow to cool and bottle. Dilute with four parts water, then spray the plant thoroughly, paying particular attention to the undersides of the leaves. Repeat each week until all signs of infestation have disappeared.

Frangipani is the flower of romance. In the West, it has always been popular in bridal bouquets and corsages. I must say that I find a race of people who do not consider themselves fully dressed until a blossom is tucked behind an ear immensely attractive.

Not so my Sundanese friend, who snorts derisively and says: “Maybe OK for Orang Bali, but not for me – and certainly not for a saggy, old bule (foreign) man like you!”

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