Hula Girl’s Flower
By Glenn I. Teves, UH CTAHR County Extension Agent
The local tradition of lei giving and receiving are an important part of local celebrations, especially May Day and graduation celebrations, bedecked with leis of all colors, shapes, and fragrances. Lei flowers, especially plumeria and its alluring fragrance remind us of bygone days, of growing up, and of special events in our lives. Plumeria is also an old favorite of hula dancers.
Plumeria, also known as Frangipani and pua melia, is native to Tropical America, and include two main species, Plumeria obtusa and acuminata that will cross to produce an array of colors, including white, yellow, pink, and red. The most famous variety is Celadine or Common Yellow, also known as Graveyard Yellow because it’s found is old graveyards in Hawaii. Very prolific, it has sturdy yellow flowers with a good shelf life and ideal for the sewing of lei. One flower cluster can produce over 200 flowers in a season.
Most plumeria species are deciduous, dropping leaves at the onset of winter as they enter a period of dormancy triggered by shortening day length and cooler temperatures. After the passing of winter and with increasing day length, buds will form and burst into flower through springtime. April to June is the peak season for plumeria flowers, and coincides with our May Day and graduation ceremonies.
Caution should be exercised when picking flowers, as some individuals have an allergic to the milky sap; wearing protective glasses and a long-sleeved shirt can help. Ideally, flowers should be picked early in the morning when flowers are fresh. About 50 flowers are needed to make a lei. Place flowers in cold water soon after picking, and remove excess water before placing them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Plumeria is very drought tolerant, but can benefit from water to enhance the quality and size of flowers. In irrigation trials conducted in Kalamaula with three water levels, five gallons evenly distributed under each plant was optimal for lei flower production in months when plants are actively growing and flowering. Inadequate water causes branches to shrivel, while higher water levels will cause branches to stretch, requiring frequent pruning to keep flowers within picking height. Easily propagated from cuttings, they should be on the dry side until rooted. Varieties with compact growth are desirable for landscape use, including Lei Rainbow, Dwarf Singapore, Heidi, and Pretty Pansy.
There are a few pests that affect plumeria, including a rust fungus prevalent in wetter areas. Scales, mealy bugs, and the Serpentine Leaf miner are mostly controlled by predators such as tiny lady bugs and predatory wasps. The plumeria stem borer can kill whole branches especially when plants are under water and nutrient stress. Keeping plants healthy is the best way to mitigate pests and disease problems.
Molokai Plumeria is one of the largest plumeria farms in Hawaii, and where you can view the prolific flowers blooming, and occasionally experience its wafting fragrance as you drive by the farm. For more information on growing plumeria, you can download this publication from the UH CTAHR website: ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/OF-31.pdf