Horticulturalist is partial to plumeria

October 18th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Features, Multimedia, Oct. 2010  |  8 Comments

Picture 1 of 17

Plumeria caracasana from northern Venezuela resides in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources’ Waimānalo farm. UH photo by R. David Beales

In some corners of the plumeria world, horticulturalist Richard Criley is a bit of a rock star. In June 2010, for example, his lecture in San Diego drew about 300 fans to the local Plumeria Society chapter gathering.

More about plumeria, including Richard Criley’s publication “Plumeria in Hawaiʻi”

Here? Not so much. Hawaiʻi, where the state Department of Agriculture inspects up to 16,000 cuttings a month for sale off-island, doesn’t even have a Plumeria Society chapter. In the land where plumeria is more plentiful than poi and the Hawaiian dictionary offers the name in eight variations, islanders take the velvety white/yellow/pink/red petals with a grateful whiff, but save their oohs and aahs for gardenia, pīkake and puakenikeni.

That doesn’t bother Criley. While the expert in tropical ornamentals has been on the plumeria trail since 1968, he’s first and foremost a scientist. “I’m still on my first job,” says Criley, a professor in the University of Hawaiʻ at Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

researcher examining plumeria

Richard Criley examines a specimen in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources' collection at the Waimanalo Research Station

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture from Pennsylvania State University and received his PhD from UCLA. Arriving in Hawaiʻi, Criley was tasked by then department Chair Donald Watson to fashion a plumeria that blossoms in winter months, when tourists are also in full bloom.

“That became one of my early research challenges,” Criley recalls. The ubiquitous lei that greets many a Christmas arrival now wasn’t so prevalent then. He was still at work when Watson retired in 1973, but before his mentor passed away in 1995, Criley was able to introduce the aptly named Mele Kalikimaka (merry Christmas) lei.

Still, plumeria remains something of a secondary pursuit for Criley. “It’s not a formal project,” he explains. “The plumeria industry is not organized. There’s no voice out there crying for it.” Without grower groups, plumeria doesn’t get the research attention of, say, the orchid or anthurium or even that other holiday flower, poinsettia.

A fellow of the American Society for Horticultural Science, recipient of the Society of American Florists’ Alex Laurie Award for Floricultural Research and chair of the Ornamentals Section of the International Society for Horticultural Science, Criley has conducted research on flowering in heliconia, ginger, protea and orchids, as well as propagation of ornamental and native plants.

He estimates plumeria research occupies about 5 percent of his brain matter. (That may surprise his fans. “All the plumeria people thought I worked for them,” he jokes.)

Luckily, provided with land and the trees, plumeria research is fairly inexpensive, he says. You set up a light on the side of the plant and see if it flowers. If it doesn’t, try some fertilizer. Oh, and if you can get one without “rusting,” a coloration that occurs on the back of some leaves, so much the better.

How does Criley spend most of his time? These days, he is finishing up a research project to get the Siam Tulip tropical ginger of Thailand to flower at this time of year instead of mid-winter. He’s got his eye on the amazing chocolate orchid, which emits a delicate but decidedly sumptuous scent, wondering if he can get it to flower in February. “It normally doesn’t bloom in time for Valentine’s Day, but it’s a good market—chocolate and flowers,” he says.

Most of the plumeria trees and bushes he works with were donated by others, such as commercial nurseryman Jim Little and Donald Angus, a kamaʻāina horticulturalist who contributed money to get the CTAHR collection started.

“We’ve built up quite a collection, also from Texas and California,” Criley says. “One I particularly like is the Lurline”-named for Lurline Matson (as in the shipping family) Roth (owner of Filoli Garden in San Francisco). “Angus is a friend of hers. He named this plant for her, hoping she’d give us some money.” He laughs. “She didn’t.”

Criley is drawn to the botanical Lurline’s remarkable coloring, neither a solid red nor a bright mix, but an interesting blend of yellows and dark red with broad petals. “A very rich-looking flower,” he says.

At the college’s Waimanalo research farm, he points out rare plumeria varieties. There’s Bali Whirl, an unusual double plumeria; instead of five petals, it has ten. Most have five, though four and six aren’t unusual, he explains.

There’s a bushy-style plumeria that’s nice for landscaping. Prefer a heady aroma? He’ll trot you over to take a whiff of the San Germain, which has plenty of scent, although it smells more like a jasmine crossed with a hybrid rose than the familiar plumeria lei.

There’s also a long aisle devoted to the work of early plumeria hybridizer Bill Moragne, the manager for Grove Farms Sugar Plantation in Kauaʻi. In the 1950s, Moragne became interested in trying to breed plumeria. He finally was able to get a successful cross with 280 seedlings. The farm has about a dozen or so hybrids named for the women in Moragne’s life—wife, daughters, daughters-in-law, etc. Criley is particular to the Sally.

He’s also hearing good things about a very fragrant Venezuelan frangipani (plumeria’s common name), but he can wait until one shows itself here. “I’m not about to go to Venezuela to get it,” he says.

So while mainland nurseries are busy producing cuttings for sale and plumeria groups are flourishing in California, Arizona, Texas and even Australia, Hawaiʻi takes one of its natural beauties for granted.

“Here, everybody has one in the backyard,” Criley says. Adopting a pitch-perfect pidgin inflection, he continues: “Ain’t no big t’ing. ‘Auntie, can I have a cutting?’”


About plumeria

unusual 9-petaled plumeria

Name game: Genus Plumeria (for French botanist Charles Plumier), common name frangipani (for an Italian nobleman who created perfume); also called cacalloxochitl in Mexico, kalachuchi in the Philippines, champa in Laos and melia in Hawaiian.

Origin: Native to Mexico, Central America and Venezuela, plumeria is a member of the Apocynanceae (dogbane) family, related to oleander and periwinkle.

Local roots: German physician William Hillebrand introduced the first cultivar in 1860, the Common Yellow familiar in yards and cemeteries.

Local varieties: Download “Plumeria in Hawaiʻi” (PDF), Richard Criley’s free, illustrated CTAHR publication covering 40 cultivars with a key by color, from the red Japanese Lantern to the white Samoan Fluff.

Garden tips: Plumeria is sensitive to cold but drought tolerant; it blooms if kept pruned and provided with sunlight.

Problems? Contact the Oʻahu Master Gardener hotline, 808-453-6055.

Plumeria watching: Visit Koko Crater Botanical Gardens on Oʻahu.


Tags: , , ,


  1. Liz Hood says:

    October 25th, 2010at 7:07 am(#)

    Dear Dr. Criley,
    I grew up in Ft. Myers, Florida with frangipani (all around the outside of our house), as we Florida crackers call it. I have lived in Salisbury, NC for the past 39 years. My husband took pity on me years ago as I missed my Fla. trees and plants and ordered a small pink plumeria for me. It lived seveal years then died. I later acquired a white one which is now probably 20 years old. It lives in a fairly larged container that I move in and out each fall and winter. I have a yellow one that has smaller blooms and slightly diferent shaped petals. I have 3 large plants and 3 small ones having given away several over the summer.I have gifted numerous friends with the new plants after prunning and letting them take root.
    How often should they be fertilized when they live under such condtions? What percentage of nitrogen, etc should be used for best blooming and tree conditions? My trees are in the usual turn yellow drop condition right now. That has happened every year I have had them here. Is that normal for container grown plumeria? They are outside from May till September, early October here. How long each day should the grow light be on them for longer blooming time? The bloom behind my ear is my trademark as a singer–yes, even in NC! When it finishes blooming I have to resort to hair clips I created from silk flowers–but no frangiapani– to have the trademark flower.
    Incidentally, my husband got his MA in art from UH. He studied mural painting under Dr. Jean Charlot. Our son graduated from Chaminade and still lives in Honolulu doing renovation/construction though his degree is Broadcast Communication/English Lit!
    Any help greatly appreciated!
    Liz Hood
    (Mrs. Walter Hood)

  2. Cheryl Ernst says:

    October 25th, 2010at 9:16 am(#)

    Aloha, Liz Hood

    We have forwarded your request for information on plumeria care to Oahu Master Gardeners.

    Best wishes
    Cheryl Ernst, Mālamalama editor

  3. George Crouchet says:

    October 25th, 2010at 1:05 pm(#)

    I just completed reading your article. As usual, I learned a few new facts about our favorite plant: origin of Celadine, release dates of some of my favorite cultivars, etc.
    Thanks for sharing your vast knowledge with the world. I am sure this will encourage some novice growers to add to their collections by starting seeds or purchasing cuttings or rooted plants.
    George Crouchet

  4. Cheryl Ernst says:

    October 29th, 2010at 11:27 am(#)

    Oʻahu Master Gardeners provided this response to Liz Hood’s question about plumeria care:

    Thank you so much for contacting the Oahu Master Gardener program. Here is a link to a UH publication from the College of tropical ag on plumerias. < http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/OF-31.pdf>http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/OF-31.pdf I think the publication will be helpful in providing you with answers on how to best care for your plumerias. So nice to hear that aloha is growing in North Carolina!

    University of Hawaiʻi Master Gardener Help Line
    955 Kamehameha Hwy, Pearl City, Hawaiʻi 96782-2501
    (808) 453-6055, 9a.m.–noon, M–F
    UH Master Gardeners are dedicated volunteers who share local, research-based information with the gardening public.

  5. Diana (Eagle) Way says:

    November 7th, 2010at 11:27 am(#)

    Very interesting article. You’ve come a long way from West Hummelstown Street.
    Diana (Eagle) Way

  6. Evie Davidson says:

    November 7th, 2010at 3:25 pm(#)

    You probably don’t remember me, but I was a member of the class of E-town’ 58, then Evie Kraybill. I found your article very interesting, and my daughter who spent a good deal of time in Hawaii and loves plumeria said I should follow up on your Email, so here it is. As I have lived in Palo Alto, CA for over 40 years, I’ve gone back to PA fairly often while my parents were still alive but haven’t done so since the 50th reunion, which, in fact, was quite fun. I do keep in frequent contact with Janet Myers as well so am reasonably up to date on the goings on there. It seems the work you do must be quite interesting and of course living in such a beautiful place certainly has it’s benefits. It’s nice to see that you’re doing so well. Evie Davidson

  7. Hawaiian Heritage Plants | bread + buttercups says:

    February 23rd, 2011at 10:15 am(#)

    [...] Plumeria: Similarly to hibiscus, plumeria is a lovely addition to many leis, but is actually native to Mexico, Venuzuela, and Central America. [...]

  8. dp goyal says:

    May 11th, 2011at 7:03 am(#)

    how many variety is available in Plumeria