(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 18, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Most people, when thinking about "the tropics", envision pristine white sand beaches sloping gracefully into turquoise blue water and surrounded by gently swaying palm trees. The people in these lovely daydreams inevitably are wearing leis, the beautiful and fragrant flower necklaces so indicative of the Hawaiian "aloha". These leis are nearly always - in the daydreams - made of the flower of the Plumeria Tree, known by some as Frangipani. But very few people realize that the plumeria is not native to Hawaii, nor to many of the many pacific islands where it now flourishes in fragrant splendor. It was brought to Hawaii in several stages. A German physician and botanist first brought the yellow to the islands in 1860. Then around the turn of the century the red showed up, probably from Mexico and just who brought it in is a matter of debate. And finally the white "Singapore" arrived in 1931 through the auspices of the director of a sugar cane plantation, purchased from a collection at the Singapore Botanical Gardens.
In the areas of the world where this lovely flower is a native, such as Mexico, India and the Asian Pacific, it is planted near cemeteries and churchyards, near temples and holy places, and is used medicinally instead of decoratively. When first introduced to Hawaii, the plumeria was considered unlucky because of its association with death. That hesitation quickly dissipated, however when it was noticed how easily the plant grew new flowers from broken branches...how it flowered when there were no leaves, and thanks to its medicinal properties, it began to be more associated with life.
After the end of World War II, the Marshall Islands became an American Protectorate. Because of a very large battle out here, an American military base was established, and we began the process of restoring the islands. At the end of the Battle of Kwajalein, the story goes, there was only one palm tree left standing. That tree now bears a plaque commemorating the battle, and the lives that were lost here. In the restoration process, it was decided by the powers that be, that more trees needed to be planted on the island, and many were brought from Hawaii and other tropical areas to aide in this attempt. The plumeria traveled yet again. This same restoration process was taking place on many of the pacific islands, and the plumeria along with many other trees came from Singapore, Hawaii and Mexico to help heal the scars of war. How appropriate that this fragrant and beautiful flower now so associated with life and living be used as a restorative after the devastation of armed conflict. Yes, fruiting trees as a food source were needed and planted, but beauty to heal damaged souls was needed as well. Isn't it interesting that its origins at cemeteries, holy places, and as a medicine are all reflected in this post war restoration?
As I wandered around my little island taking pictures for this article, I was thinking about this history of the much-traveled plumeria. I smiled to myself as I reflected that, far from being weary of its travels, the plumeria seems to thrive ever stronger with each introduction to a new area of the world. From Florida to Ankara, from British Columbia to India, and all points in between, each breath of the heavenly fragrances, and each glimpse of the beautiful flowers creates more plumeria lovers. On my little meander, I found the broken branch of one of my favorites...a lovely yellow/white with a subtle, not overpowering scent. Of course, I took it home to plant and await its restoration, and my own. I might even make a lei from the flowers, or scatter them on the turquoise blue water. After all, this is the tropics.
I would supply a list of suggested reading, but the list would be longer than this article, so I will simply say - ENJOY!