San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Lei Flowers Native to C.A., Caribbean

Did you know Hawaiian lei flowers are originally from the tropical Americas? It wasn’t until the 18th century that they were transplanted to Hawaii by Spanish and Portuguese explorers sailing through Polynesia en route to their colonies in Asia. Of course, the Hawaiians were quick to adopt this plant with its beautiful, fragrant flowers into their culture.

All eight species of frangipani (Plumeria spp.) originally came from Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean. Today, they can be found around the world in tropical climates and are highly esteemed for their lovely, fragrant blossoms that serve so well in floral arrangements. In Costa Rica, you can find frangipani in a wide variety of colors at local nurseries. In Spanish they are called frangipani, plumeria, juche or cacalojoche.

These plants are recognized by their gangly, sausage-like branches with long, lance-like, green leaves, which appear only at the tips of the plant along with flowers clusters that range in color from pastel red to yellow or white. Hybrids of colorful tones also exist, which can make identifying the plants a real challenge.

Here’s a rundown on some of the species: P. rubra produces flowers in tones of pastel red and has the largest leaves, with conspicuous marginal veins; P. alba has white flowers and narrow, lance-shaped leaves with wavy edges; P. obtusa has spatula-like leaves with distinctly rounded apexes and white blooms centered with yellow, and, to make things confusing, it often has variable form and color.

Propagation of these plants is done by seeds or stem cuttings; the latter are cut from the mother tree and left to dry out for a week or more before being planted in a pot or directly in the soil. This unusual method is used because the stem is hollow and needs time to “heal” before planting.

Frangipani likes areas with full sun or a little shade for best flowering, and grows in a wide variety of soils in the coastal and intermediate regions of the country. Of course, applying fertilizers, such as soluble organic compost tea, helps boost growth and flowering.

Personally, I find the gangly appearance of these bush-like trees not so aesthetically pleasing; however, planting colorful foliage plants around the base of frangipani is a good solution.

If you can’t make it to Hawaii, at least you can bring Hawaiian lei flowers to your home garden.


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