“That’s pretty typical. Plumerias are such faithful plants, they are easily overlooked,” says Paul Weissich as I recount my dysfunctional relationship with my plumeria trees. I think a little guiltily of the attention I have lavished on my mango tree, the golden child of my yard.
But Weissich is not concerned with my neglect. He’s busy marveling at the plumeria. “They are in flower for six or seven months. How many plants do you know that produce highly fragrant, highly colorful, highly useful flowers most of the year?” asks Weissich. He thinks for a moment, then answers his own question. “Well, there is a related species from Africa—but it’s poisonous.”
Weissich is Honolulu’s grand old man of botany. He was the director of the Honolulu Botanical Gardens from 1957 until his retirement in 1990, and during his long tenure, the gardens grew to encompass more than 600 acres. That total includes the 400-plus acres of Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden, where Weissich and I are meeting.
Weissich is bent over a Xerox machine in one of Ho‘omaluhia’s back offices. He’s copying some pages for me from a plant reference book, and in between the flash of the photocopier, he recounts the plumeria’s history in Hawai‘i. It starts with the curious fact that it took nearly a century for the plumeria to win the hearts and minds of Islanders. Like the Spaniards, the people of Hawai‘i quickly appreciated the tree’s ability to survive and even thrive in harsh conditions. And so they planted the tree in and around cemeteries and other places that were seldom irrigated and only occasionally tended. Unfortunately, as a result, the plumeria here became associated with death and not divinity, as it had in Asia.
“The make [dead] man tree, they called it. ‘Graveyard plumeria’ is another term,” says Weissich. “You don’t hear those names much anymore, but in the early days, a lot of people didn’t want anything to do with them.”
In 1931, the first red plumeria (Plumeria rubra) arrived in the Islands from Mexico to join the Common Yellow. Who brought it is a mystery: It was a diplomat’s wife, a landscaper at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel or a Bishop Museum botanist. At about the same time, botanist Harold Lyon imported the Singapore plumeria (Plumeria obtusa), an evergreen species with deep green waxy leaves. Those three species and their poi dog offspring now dominate the Island landscape.
It wasn’t until after World War II, says Weissich, that Islanders finally began to fall under the plumeria’s spell. In the early ’50s, Honolulu’s Outdoor Circle held a series of flower festivals that showcased the plumeria and its wide variety of shapes, colors and fragrances. Soon, a house wasn’t a home in rapidly expanding Honolulu unless it had a plumeria tree in its yard.
The plumeria got a further boost from the territory’s growing tourism industry, which was quick to realize the flower’s significant attributes: readily available for most of the year, easy to string into lei and possessor of a gentle perfume that was becoming synonymous with Hawai‘i. The plumeria soon became a fixture at cruise ship arrivals and departures, transforming Honolulu Harbor’s Boat Day into a fragrant affair. A decade later, at Honolulu International Airport, the plumeria greeted the first travelers of the jet age.
But the plumeria wasn’t just a fashionable icon of mid-century Honolulu. The transience of the ethereal blossom, which lasts less than a day, also put value in the emotion and intensity of the moment, a sentiment at the heart of Native Hawaiian lei-making and lei-giving traditions.
“The essence of the lei is not how long it will last. It is the moment that it celebrates,” says Weissich. “For Hawaiians, it was about the love that went into the making and presenting of the lei, and the plumeria was perfect for that. It is beautiful, it has a wonderful fragrance, and then it’s gone.”
“When did Hawai‘i fall out of love with the plumeria?” I ask.
“I don’t think plumerias ever fell out of favor with us. They’ve got too many things going for them,” says Weissich as he flips through the draft of a new book he’s co-writing, searching for another flower tidbit for me. “Maybe subconsciously we appreciate them more than ever now, precisely because we have taken them for granted. We take the air we breathe for granted. We take the water for granted.”