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Green Acre: #208: Lei-ing Low in DC

Plumeria. / iStock photo.

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” doesn’t have all the answers, but she’ll research some if you submit questions to her. You can just add a Comment to this post, and the question will be forwarded to our Green Acre columnist. Meanwhile, back to our originally scheduled column.

I’M STARING at the plumeria, as I do most mornings, willing it to flower. 

Sometimes I sit next to it, nosed up close to the grainy-looking bits at the joint of each leaf. Is this where it flowers? I wonder. Are these new branches to be?

Plumeria is (in my opinion) the ultimate tropical plant, bearing hallucinogenically hued flowers scented to near paralyzing sweetness, flowers that are traditionally woven into Hawaiian leis.

I went to Hawaii once and a briefly clad woman draped a gorgeous lei around my neck as I exited the airport, enveloping me in scent. Welcome to Honolulu.

Craving one ever since, most springs I’m bamboozled at the Philadelphia Flower Show—the section taking up half the Convention Center, where garden furniture, fairy lights and frequently ghastly ornaments are sold. Also plumeria. Not the plant, mind you, but the promise of one. A stick, which I’ve been told (over and over) will easily grow into a bush laden with heavenly flowers. In Philadelphia. 

So if they can do it in Philadelphia, surely the plumeria will thrive in the semi-tropic summers of Washington DC. Right?

Clutching my stick on the train ride home, I’m full of joy and renewed anticipation. Once home, I tenderly insert it into fine soil, the best soil, set it in a sunny spot in the solarium, water it and watch.

And watch.

And watch.

And throw the damned dead thing out.

The plant I’m now cooing over was ordered from a Florida grower late last summer. He’s a specialist in plumeria—though I’ve lost both his name and the name or even the (promised) color and variety of this particular specimen. I care not, as it began leafing out in March, three pinky-nail-size sprouts emerged and began to grow.

I cannot overestimate the ecstasy of this, particularly since absolutely nothing else pleasurable was going on in those early days of the endless plague . . . and still isn’t. 

Certainly, I was deprived of my then 3-month-old grandson, Wesley (or Moishe, as I prefer to think of him). We would watch him on the computer screen; if he noticed us at all, we were just TV people. The plumeria is my grandchild substitute.  

All of the leaves fell off as soon as she (all of my plants are female) made her summer transit to the strongest patch of sun I possess on the back porch, but she still looked green. A few weeks later new leaves appeared. I added Miracle-Gro and the leaves grew. I added Flower Fuel, a highly concentrated bloom booster, and overnight the leaves grew half an inch (of course I was measuring). 

So here we are in early August and I have a nice leafy little plant, with no sign of blossoms, and no idea where they’d emerge from if the plant decided to bloom at all. 

I asked our dear friend Sara, who lives in Florida and was whooping about hers blooming last year: “In order to maximize success with plumeria,” she said in an email, “you should be a forgetful and slightly demented little old lady who lives in Florida. That solves both the problem of the tendency to overwater as well as any climate issues.  

“I just stick the stick in a pot, occasionally accidentally notice it in my very sunny courtyard and water it if I can muster the energy and inclination. I also find that calling it by its more exotic name, frangipani, elicits more cooperative behavior. Who wouldn’t bloom if they were named after a 17th-century Italian nobleman, the Marquis Muzio Frangipane? “ 

This was not particularly helpful, but it did make me laugh.

Facebook has a number of sites devoted to tropical plants, among them, Florida Plumeria Growers, boasting photos of exquisite plants bearing flowers of breathtaking color and shape. Glorious, enviable, spectacular shades, and combinations of shades. Oranges, pinks, pinks and  oranges, purples. One could hyperventilate. 

Questioning this wonderfully helpful group, I got estimates of flowering times that stretched from one year to seven. Maybe I’d live long enough to see it bloom. 

They suggested I look at groups that cover growing tropicals in my area, a no-brainer, which is why it didn’t occur earlier. 

Logging into Mid-Atlantic Tropics, a group that features seemingly outlandish feats of horticulture, like full-blown tropical gardens in Pittsburgh.

I gathered my info from both groups.

The flowers emerge from the top, not the sides, and the budding bit is called an “inflo,” short for inflorescence, or the plumeria’s flower stalk. If you’re lucky enough to have such a thing, more flowering stalks will emerge around it.  

Inflo is a word that gets bandied around a lot on these sites. Using it makes one feel knowledgeable. Always look for words that make you look like you know what you’re talking about, I always say.

From there, things grew murky. Fertilize more. Fertilize less. Different fertilizer. More sun. Much more sun. Larger pot. Pot’s okay. Depends on variety (uh-oh). And beware of spider mites.  

And then . . . exhale.

“Summers between NY and DC are definitely warm and sunny enough,” said a guy known as Jefe, who’s living in Hong Kong but was originally from DC and also lived in New York.  

“I brought two plumeria stalks back from Hawaii and, later, one stalk from Singapore to Queens, NY. Got them both to bloom every summer. Needs to be warm and sunny. Not too picky about feeding.

“Once light levels drop, or temps drop to around 45F, the leaves fall off. But they come back in the Spring, and quickly, once the sun and temps are back up. I got blooms from July to September.”

 Three, four hours of summer sun was all Jefe had, about all I can offer, but glory be, it was enough for them to grow and blossom.

It took two years for the Hawaiian plumeria to bloom, he said, but once it did, it blossomed non-stop all summer. In five years, an eight-inch stalk grew into a multi-branched five-foot tree, with new branches emerging from the stalk after bloom. 

I have nothing better to do than wait. 

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” overwinters showy tropical plants in her glassed-in office/conservatory, then moves them out into the steamy DC summer environment, sometimes with good results (sometimes not).


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2 thoughts on “Green Acre: #208: Lei-ing Low in DC

  1. Perhaps I should name the plumeria Covid. Or maybe, Vi?

  2. Margaret Hall says:

    A story of our C-V time, me thinks…? Your Plumeria – as much as it is loved and cosseted – stunted in its bid to get on with things. But one day (surely) like the rest of us, it will burst forth….

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