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.
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?’”
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.