Depending on which text you read, there are between seven and fourteen species of plumeria in the world, all of which are native to tropical Mexico, Central America, parts of South America and the Caribbean. Luckily, not everyone is as unobservant and unaware of the plant as I am.
The recorded history of the tree begins with the Aztecs: They used fragrant plumeria blossoms in religious rites and considered the flowers so sacred that anyone caught catching a whiff of them after they had been offered to the gods was immediately executed. The Spaniards developed a similar appreciation for the tree, taking it along as they led their conquests of the Pacific and Asia and planting it in missions, monasteries and graveyards in far-flung colonies and trading posts.
Once introduced, the plumeria caught on quickly throughout Asia. Both Muslims and Buddhists came to consider the tree a symbol of immortality, since its branches could not only survive but also flower after being severed. The Hindus, like the Aztecs, offered the blossoms to their gods—though without the harsh taboos.
As revered as the plumeria has been throughout human history, though, it is now more loved than ever—today the tree is, according to Richard Criley, in the midst of its golden age. Criley is a professor of horticulture in the University of Hawai‘i’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, and he’s giving me a crash course in the plumeria’s recent history: As people throughout the world have discovered that the tree gives so much and asks so little, Criley tells me, sales of plants and cuttings have burgeoned over the last fifteen years. And, unbeknownst to most Islanders, Hawai‘i is at the center of this boom. Nowhere else in the world, not in the plumeria’s native Mexico nor anywhere in Asia is there such a wide variety of cultivars of the plant.
As we talk, Criley and I are standing in shin-deep grass at the University of Hawai‘i’s experimental research farm in Waimanalo. It’s home to a 2.5-acre grove that contains more than 200 plumeria trees and represents approximately 120 different species and cultivars.
“I know of a grower here who ships 18,000 cuttings a month,” says Criley. “If you go online, you’ll see cuttings going for eight or nine dollars. These are from common varieties that you find in people’s yards. But most collectors won’t hesitate to spend $30 for an unrooted cutting, and other very desirable varieties can go for $75 to $100. So you can do the math.”
Criley answers my elementary questions about plumerias very precisely and succinctly, as if he has been interviewed thousands of times. And likely he has. Criley is the acknowledged expert in everything plumeria, having studied the plant for nearly forty years. For much of his career, he researched and wrote about the plant in relative obscurity. But now he’s treated like a rock star when he attends plumeria conferences: peppered with questions, photographed with groupies. Some of his lectures have been surreptitiously videotaped and sold on the Internet.
“I get calls all the time from enthusiasts with a question about their plants, and then that question leads to another and then another,” says Criley. “When you read those discussion boards [on the Internet], you wonder if these people have a life.”
Criley tells me that plumerias are astonishingly fragrant flowers, with a range of perfumes unmatched in the plant world. Plumeria fragrances can resemble fruits, roses, gardenias, soap, candy, fresh air, coconut, spice, baby powder, even a wet, unwashed dog.
Criley walks me to a small, unremarkable tree with flowers that have white petals and yellow centers. He tells me to feel the petals. They are substantial, like very thin suede. Then I smell them. I’m momentarily transported to Honolulu International Airport, circa the late ’60s or early ’70s, and I’m on an open-air concourse, waiting for an auntie or uncle or cousin to arrive from the Mainland. When I tell Criley about the memory, he smiles and tells me that I just caught a whiff of the Celadine plumeria, a classic variety that is still the main flower found at the airport and in lei shops along Chinatown’s Maunakea Street. We continue our stroll through the grove. Along the way, Criley picks different flowers and lets me sniff them. It’s like revisiting old friends.
“Plumerias are very popular in Bali, and there you’ll see as many trees in people’s yards and along the streets as you do in Hawai‘i. But over there, they are all the same—white. In Hawai‘i, there are so many different kinds in so many different places,” says Criley. “How did this happen? It’s pretty simple: ‘Hey, Auntie, I like one.’ ‘Uncle, that’s one nice tree. Can I have?’ People shared.”
In other words, we Islanders were as generous as our trees. As cuttings were passed over fences and left on doorsteps, trees grew and flowers pollinated and seedpods dropped. We became the plumeria and the plumeria became us.