Plumeria in Hawaiʻi: A Fragrant Love Affair

When Doug Brunner first set foot in Hawaiʻi during his college Spring Break back in 1988, he had no idea that he was about to fall head over heels in love. But it wasn’t a person that stole his heart; it was the plumeria tree.

“I was absolutely captivated by the sheer variety,” reminisces Brunner, the proud owner of Maui Plumeria Gardens in Haʻikū, Maui. “There were the common Celadine, but also stunning reds and pinks with different petal shapes. Their fresh, floral scent perfectly embodied the essence of Hawaiʻi.”

It turns out that Brunner isn’t alone in feeling this way. The plumeria lei continues to be one of the most beloved symbols of Hawaiʻi, adored by both locals and visitors alike. As the delicate petals of these vibrant flowers begin to bloom all across the islands, their sweet fragrance enchants all who encounter them.

While plumerias are often associated with Hawaiʻi, they are actually not native to these islands. Originating from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, these small trees have found a new home in the warm regions of Hawaiʻi. Known by various names, including frangipani, temple tree, and melia in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian language), plumerias were introduced to the islands by Dr. William Hillebrand, a German biologist, in 1860.

Thriving in Hawaiʻi’s balmy climate and volcanic soil, plumerias can be found growing from sea level to as high as 2,000 feet. Although they require full sun, it may surprise you to learn that plumerias can be successfully grown almost anywhere, as long as they are brought indoors during the winter months. This adaptability has made plumerias a favorite among gardening enthusiasts around the world.

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Brunner, with his 2-acre farm in Haʻikū, is passionate about sharing the joy of plumerias with others. He ships plumeria cuttings to customers both within and outside of Hawaiʻi, catering to the ideal growing conditions found in southern states such as California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona. However, he also sends his precious cuttings to colder climates like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington state.

“You’d be amazed at how hardy these trees are,” Brunner explains. “All they need is some light and water, and they’ll flourish, just like they want to.”

The beauty of plumerias lies not only in their resilience but also in their ease of propagation. Simply take a cutting from any branch of the tree, insert it into well-drained soil, and water it regularly. That’s all it takes for a new plumeria plant to take root and thrive.

The first plumeria cultivar introduced to Hawaiʻi was a vibrant yellow flower known as Plumeria acuminata. Its long-lasting blossoms, delightful fragrance, and low maintenance requirements quickly made it a popular choice for planting in cemeteries. This variety earned the nickname “Graveyard Yellow,” which is still used affectionately today. It is also referred to as the “Common Yellow” plumeria and remains one of the most commonly found varieties in Hawaiʻi.

Over time, countless new plumeria varieties have emerged, each showcasing unique characteristics. Some boast deep red centers, while others display a delightful blend of pink and white. Petals come in various sizes and shapes, and even the leaves exhibit their own distinct features.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate a few standout varieties. The “Kāneʻohe Sunburst” dazzles with its deep pink flowers, adorned with brilliant yellow centers and slightly overlapping narrow petals. The “Maui Beauty” captivates with its small, bright yellow and pink blooms, characterized by wide petals and a hint of lemony fragrance. And then there’s the “MPG Watermelon Sugar,” a creation of Brunner himself, boasting pastel-pink blossoms with a subtle orange center and a delicate, nutmeg-like scent.

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For those curious minds seeking to explore the world of plumerias further, the Plumeria Society of America, based in Texas, serves as the international cultivar registration authority. Their extensive collection includes dozens of named cultivars, ranging from the pure white elegance of “Singapore” to the dark red allure of “Hilo Beauty” and the reddish-yellow petals of “Kauka Wilder.”

With his farm in Haʻikū growing steadily, Brunner’s passion for plumerias shows no sign of waning. Starting with a single tree that came with the property, he now tends to over 400 plumeria trees, representing more than 100 distinct varieties. In 2022, he plans to expand his operations to another 10 acres of leased land in Waikapū and hopes to offer walking tours for plumeria enthusiasts.

“For me, growing plumerias has become an all-encompassing passion,” Brunner reveals with a smile. “I am constantly amazed by the vibrant beauty of these flowers and the endless variety they offer.”

For those who wish to experience the allure of plumerias firsthand, a visit to the Ames Farm Center is an absolute must. Explore their website at AmesFarmCenter.com to discover the world of plumerias and indulge in the vibrant beauty that these incredible flowers bring to Hawaiʻi.

Plumeria Image
Image source: Ames Farm Center

Watch the video below to catch a glimpse of the breathtaking plumeria blooms in Hawaiʻi:

Plumeria Video
Video source: Ames Farm Center