By Stephanie Cavanaugh
AMONG MY never-blooming tropical plants is a plumeria, also known as frangipani, which is native to places that are a helluva lot hotter than here, and are perhaps best known as the flower Hawaiians weave into leis and wear with grass skirts when hula-dancing, and also hang around the necks of tourists when they arrive at airports. Or at least they did when I visited decades ago.
The scent is such that once scented it’s haunting, at least for me. The flowers are beautiful, tender leaves in pastel washes, and single shades of pink, red, white, yellow, orange—few of them obnoxious.
They’re sold by the 8- or 10-inch stalk, which looks like a rootless stick, which is what I will henceforth call it. They’re sold often at big flower shows, by petite, grinning, often Asian women who nod and tell you in halting English to stick the stick in a pot and watch it grow Beautiful flowers, yes. So sweet.
And you (meaning me) look cross-eyed at said stick and say to yourself, Really? And cross the woman’s soft little palm with $5, $10, $20, or whatever is the going rate that year. I started at $5.
The stick is introduced to a pot, you water it, and settle in to wait. Months pass. You fertilize. Gradually, the stick blackens and bends. Oh rot, you say, literally.
Another year, another stick. This time you read about nurturing it, finding, in the meantime, that it is named for 17th-century French botanist and Catholic monk Charles Plumier, if one calls it plumeria, and Muzio Frangipane, a 16th-century marquess, if one calls it frangipani. Having followed instructions, you once again settle in to wait, watching the stick slowly blacken.
More years, more urging from petite grinning women (it could be the same one!). So easy! So beautiful! More dollars cross her tiny palm.
Then you find a Facebook page devoted to plumeria growers and take a tip to buy from Florida Colors Plumeria Nursery for (agh!) $35.56, including shipping.
Your stick arrives. It’s marginally bigger than the flower-show acquisitions. Trembling, you pot it. And lo! Tiny buds appear, which grow into strappy-looking leaves. The stick grows taller, the leaves longer. Little nubs appear in the center of the leaves. Don’t hold your breath. More leaves are arriving.
Where do the flowers come from? They’re an inflorescence, the Facebook folks say. Or “inflos” for short. Inflos are greeted with such excitement, photos are shared. And I’m like, What the hell is an inflo?
Should the name of the Facebook group, Florida Plumeria Growers, have given me a clue that their advice would be close to useless? Florida does a bang-up job of standing in for Oahu, it seems. Florida is not here.
Well, at least I have leaves. And then as the weather chills, they fall off. At the time—this was several years ago—I had a little greenhouse, WHICH WE WILL NOT GET INTO, and I nursed my stick through the winter. Leaves once again appeared in spring, more of them! I wait. Is that an inflo? Nooooooooo, another leaf. That? Nooooo. Another leaf. And so it went, and winter once again arrived.
By now, the plumeria stick is five feet tall in its pot. Leafless, it is not an attractive sight. So, it was sent to Baby’s house, in Virginia, where I wouldn’t have to look at it. This is one of several reasons it is good to have children, or at least a child, so you can foist ugly things upon them. Just for a few months, Baby . . .
This past March, the stick was once again throwing off leaves, this time in three clusters. The excitement built. I consulted a new-found Facebook friend who divides his time between an apartment in Northern Virginia and a place in Hong Kong, doing god knows what. He told me his plumerias do splendidly on his balcony, flower freely, just . . . wait, he said. And I did.
Nothing. All but two of the leaves have fallen. Baby has rearranged her house and claims there is no room anymore for my stick. Wait until she reads my Will.
This is not a problem in Florida, where the leaves don’t even drop, the plants just keep infloing and blooming and scenting the air with such intoxicating sweetness that one could plotz.
Yet again, I investigate. There are several courses of action, but the one I liked best has an effortless appeal. Simply move the pot to somewhere in the house where it won’t freeze, maybe the basement, and leave it alone. Don’t even bother watering. Put it outside when the night temperature is at least 50 degrees and little leaves will begin to show again. With instructions like that, can an inflo be far behind?
So easy! So beautiful . . .