A frieze of frangipanis

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Plumeria rubra var. acutifolia

Happy New Year to all my readers and let's hope that 2010 is a good year for gardeners! Many (myself included) will have been away on holidays lately, and whilst I try to switch off a bit from gardening when on vacation, there is usually something that catches my eye and gives me a new idea for my own plot.

Apricot-coloured cultivar of Plumeria rubra, Newcastle, NSW

This time it was frangipanis (Plumeria rubra). With our destination Shoal Bay (Port Stephens area, NSW), my brother-in-law, my husband and my younger daughter decided to sail up. Whilst they battled rain, a huge 3m swell and freezing conditions in their torturous 14-hour journey by sea, my sister and I had a leisurely car drive, diverting via Newcastle to visit relatives on the way. It was there that I saw the first frangipani of the trip. A magnificent large specimen with apricot flowers grew in front of an abandoned old house painted in a deeper shade of the same colour - it was quite a breathtaking sight (pictured above). I hope that whoever planted that tree got to see it in its maturity.

Plumeria rubra var. acutifolia, Shoal Bay, NSW

Once we'd arrived at Shoal Bay, I seemed to see frangipani trees everywhere I looked. In Sydney, we mainly see the classic creamy coloured version with a lemon centre (Plumeria rubra var. acutifolia), but in Shoal Bay, there were so many pretty varieties, including pinks of various tones, peach, pure white and a lovely example of the lemon one suffused with pink overtones. They seemed such an apt tree for a coastal holiday town and appeared to be thriving in the sandy soil of the region. I particularly loved the yellow ones growing near little old holiday cottages painted up with blue window frames and trims, as shown in the accompanying photo.

Pink cultivar of Plumeria rubra, Shoal Bay, NSW

I never planted a frangipani in my current garden and regret this now. A few years ago, frangipani flowers were a popular icon for young teenage girls, their shape featuring in candles, ear rings and necklaces and the image appearing on T-shirts and wall hangings. My girls would have loved to have had their own tree, but I never got around to planting one. However, upon my arrival home from my holiday I noted with delight that a cutting I had been given from a wonderful old tree in a local historic property had taken root and was sprouting leaves, so I vowed to plant it in my garden without delay, even though the girls have moved on from their fascination with the flowers by now.

Frangipanis grow into delightful small trees for a garden with a semi-tropical look, usually reaching a height of around 4m, though with great age they seem capable of growing to 8-10m. They have a distinctive domed canopy. Unfurling like miniature parasols from slim buds, the exquisite waxy flowers begin to appear in early summer and continue through autumn, and are strongly perfumed. The root system of the tree is not invasive. Originating in Central America, frangipanis are frost sensitive but cope well with our Sydney climate. They are quite deciduous here, but I find their reindeer-antler look in winter rather endearing.

Multicoloured cultivar of Plumeria rubra, Shoal Bay, NSW

There are so many different colours available these days to choose from - as well as the ones I saw on holidays, there are yellows, reds, oranges, cerise and even violet. Some are striped or have petal edges in a contrasting colour - some remind me of an exotic cocktail sipped on a tropical holiday! There are various species of Plumeria, but P. rubra is the best for our climate; see my plant reference for specific cultivation details. There is a chapter in Leo Schofield's book The garden at Bronte (2002) devoted to his passion for frangipanis, with lovely photos of some the favourites he grew there.