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 A touch of the tropics


Gardening Australia magazine, April 2007

Frangipanis are rivalling roses and orchids for the mantle of Australia’s favourite flower. JERRY COLEBY-WILLIAMS reveals the true brilliance of frangipanis and explains how to grow them to perfection at your place.

Frangipani flowers evoke different emotions, depending on culture. In down-to-earth Australia they’re backyard survivors, beating near-death experiences from some of the most brutal pruning I’ve ever seen. Everywhere they’re grown, their fresh flowers are scattered in pools and bowls as a finishing touch before special events. You can even order fresh frangipani flowers by mail. They’re a favourite in Buddhist temples too, while in some parts of South-East Asia they’re associated with demons and vampires.

Frangipani flowers are also traditionally used in leis – Hawaiian necklaces made from leaves, seashells, ivory and flowers. The leis are made by stringing flowers through the centre until a complete necklace is formed. Polynesian custom is that leis are worn at weddings and given out to signify a genuine welcome – and a fond farewell – for visitors to Hawaii.

Choosing a variety
The bold hybrids of Plumeria x rubra are the most widely admired. Unpruned in warm areas, they reach 9m high with a spread of 5m, but are generally smaller, especially in milder climates. The fragrant flowers come in hues of white, yellow, pink, orange, purple and red. With an expanding range of colour combinations and patterns, plus dwarfs from 1–2m, it’s easy to understand why the ubiquitous white frangipani has fallen from grace.

The evergreen or Singapore frangipani, Plumeria obtusa, is now very fashionable. The allure? Large, pure white flowers and broad, glossy leaves. Reaching 5m high, it’s ideal for city gardens in the tropics and subtropics.

Getting started
Always plant frangipanis at the same depth as they were in the container and keep mulches from touching the base. Their trunks are prone to fungal decay, particularly in cold, wet weather.

To grow frangipanis in containers, particularly plastic pots, use a premium-grade potting mix without added wetting agents or water crystals. Terracotta pots benefit growth. They are porous, which helps drainage while discouraging root-rot. In addition to this, container-grown frangipanis can become top-heavy and the weight of the terracotta pot balances this. Terracotta also warms in sunshine, helping frangipanis succeed in temperate climates.

Before planting loosen the soil and add compost. For clay soils, work in gypsum at the recommended rate to improve air and water movement. Planting in a mound, about 15cm above the surface, improves drainage in clay.

Transplant during the warm seasons when recovery is fastest. Retain as many roots as possible and firmly stake until strong anchoring roots develop, this usually takes about 12 months.

Care and maintenance
Water regularly to help plants establish during the summer growing season, but allow plants to go dry in between waterings. Never saturate soil. After the first season following planting, your frangipani needs little, if any, extra water.

The further south and the further inland you grow frangipanis the more important warmth, drainage, sunshine and frost protection become for establishment. Planting near masonry walls, buildings or in paved areas provides shelter from wintry winds and reflects warmth.

Frangipanis grow about 30–60cm a year, depending on climate and care. They need full sunshine and a fertile, free-draining soil. Sandy or sandy-loam soils are ideal. Frangipani trees have compact, non-invasive root systems, so they can be grown safely near pipes and cables or in narrow beds. They respond well to pruning too. To keep trees compact and bushy, prune branches back by one-third in late summer.

Frangipanis in the garden
Despite breeding advances in flower colour, frangipani fragrance remains the true prize. Grow them where you can appreciate their delicious scent, which intensifies at night. Their size and umbrella-shaped silhouette make frangipanis ideal for landscapes large and small. In summer they cast dappled shade, they line footpaths to create beautiful avenues and they are ideal for framing distant views – perhaps a beach.

Use a pair either side of an entrance to create a sense of welcome, or employ spot-lighting to dramatically illuminate their flowers and shapely form. Grow them in lawns and let their fallen flowers cover the ground.

Their leafless branches in the cooler months allow sunshine to filter through, just right for brightening a patio in winter. Their light canopy can be under planted with perennials, their forked branches support hanging baskets and their trunks can be used for growing epiphytes, such as ferns, orchids and bromeliads.

Grown in tubs, dwarf varieties make colourful pool-side specimens and are ideal for hot or sunny balconies.

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