How to Plant, Grow and Care For Plumeria
Thinking of planting some plumeria in your garden but aren't sure where to start? This popular plant grows well in a variety of different environments. In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss shares her top tips for growing plumeria in your indoor or outdoor garden this season.
Plumeria flowers are so delightful that they have been adopted for traditional uses in many places to which they are not native. In Hawaii, although they are not native, they are traditionally regarded as the standard flower for making leis.
These beautiful flowering plants are beautifully scented, and most varieties truly have their own fragrance, making it easy to mix and match your favorite plumeria types for unique blends of scent.
Plumeria can be grown indoors and outdoors. However, it will truly thrive when grown in more tropical climates that closely mirror their native environments. Let’s dive into all the details you’ll need to grow healthy plumerias in your garden or indoors if you choose.
Deciduous Shrub or Small Tree
About 12 with several hybrids
Succulents, Palms, Tropicals
Spring, Summer, and Fall
Plumeria Rust, Black Tip Fungus, Black Rot, Powdery Mildew
Well-Draining, Cactus Mix, Sandy
Bees, Butterflies, and Moths
Low to Moderate
Central and South America
Spider Mites, Whiteflies, Scale, Mealybugs
up to 20 feet
The Plumeria genus is a member of the dogbane family and is native to tropical America. From Florida to Brazil and the Caribbean Islands, these attractive small trees leave a lasting impression on the summer landscape.
Over time, Plumeria trees have been naturalized in much of Asia, including the Pacific Islands. With hundreds of varieties spread over 12 species, each variety has a unique and beautiful color combination and a fragrance all its own.
They have attractive succulent branches that support sprays of large, attractive leave and bouquets of aromatic flowers at the end of each branch.
Their growth habit varies between species, with most trees growing between 1’-2’ per year. They are very receptive to pruning, so they make wonderful container plants in climates where they need to be brought indoors for the winter.
Plumerias are deciduous small trees or shrubs. During the plant’s dormant period, which coincides with the drought season in its native landscape, Plumeria drops its leaves. It needs little to no care at all during dormancy until the plant begins another growth cycle.
The dormant period coincides with winter in the Northern Hemisphere, making this a great indoor/outdoor plant in colder climates. The tree can be moved indoors in the cold weather and needs minimal tending until the weather warms.
Plumerias begin to grow in spring, branching from the tips where the leaves and flowers have fallen. Every 1-2 years, these plants will grow new branches, and it is at the tips of these branches that they will grow flowers. Plumeria always blooms on the newest wood and often flowers before new leaves grow.
The smooth, grey trunks of these plants are thin and flexible, making them stand up well to strong winds. Once mature, they are very hard and durable.
Their main sensitivity is to cold and wet weather. This can potentially damage the plant’s root system, which is susceptible to fungal root rots that thrive in cool, damp conditions.
Plumeria leaves are long and ovate with generally rounded but occasionally slightly pointed tips. They are heavily veined and have a shiny, waxy heaviness.
These leaves are brilliant green and grow in clusters that form at the ends of the newest branches. The growth habit gives this tropical plant a palm-like appearance.
Plumerias can be pruned into different shapes, which also determines the density of their foliage. It is possible to have a tree that has very dense foliage or one that has more staggered branches.
Plumeria’s flowers are the true star of this show. The blooms appear in a cluster at the tips of each of the newest branches, sometimes blooming before any leaves appear. Plumerias typically bloom from late spring until early fall. However, in very warm climates, they have been known to bloom year-round.
The list of color combinations is quite extensive, but most flowers are combinations of white, yellow, pink, red, and orange. There are a handful of varieties with mono-color flowers, but most are a combination of 2 or more colors.
There are typically five petals that grow in a whorl and open out into an attractive star shape. Similar to the leaves, the petals can have rounded or pointed ends.
Although very beautiful, the appearance of the flowers pales in comparison to the fragrance. The scent of Plumeria flowers varies. Some smell sweet, some like jasmine or gardenias, and others have a spicy or citrusy scent. While there is not one consistent scent that can be assigned to these flowers, they are nearly all fragrant.
These stunning trees have been naturalized in many tropical landscapes and are very popular in Hawaii, where they are the signature flower from which leis are constructed. The beautiful Calcutta Star variety is said to be the most fragrant of all the Plumerias and has a strong and spicy scent.
Propagating Plumerias is an interesting topic. The process of propagation is almost too easy to be true. While they can be grown from seed, propagation from cuttings is generally very successful, so there is little reason to propagate in any other manner unless you feel so inclined.
Had I not witnessed firsthand the simplicity of propagating Plumerias from cuttings, I might hesitate to say this. While I am going to share some tips for ensuring the success of your endeavor, I have literally snapped a branch off of one of these trees, popped it into a pot full of soil, and ended up with a full-grown tree in a matter of 3 years.
In short, propagating Plumerias from cuttings is almost foolproof, but here are a few suggestions that may help give your Plumeria a head start.
- Choose a sturdy branch from the parent tree. A branch of about 1’-2’ is just right and can be removed without corrupting the shape of the tree.
- Disinfect a sharp knife or tool for cutting and sever the branch from the parent plant. Try to cut it flush with the supporting branch.
- Apply powdered sulfur to the cuts to prevent fungal or bacterial invaders.
- Remove all flowers and foliage except for two leaves and allow the end of the branch two weeks to callus over.
- You can wrap the end in plastic wrap or leave it exposed in a humid climate.
- Once the end has callused, fill a pot with a coarse mix of potting soil and sand or pumice.
- The potting medium needs to have good drainage, as Plumeria is susceptible to root rot.
- Place the branch cut side down into the soil about 2” deep and water in.
- Refrain from watering again until the branch sprouts new leaves.
- Move the pot to your desired location and allow the plant to acclimate.
- Once the cutting is firmly rooted, you can transplant it into the ground or a larger pot and enjoy your new plant.
Growing Plumeria from seeds is not much more complicated than from cuttings. The seeds should be soaked in water overnight and planted in a cactus mix or other coarse mixed soil, fat end down.
Give your seeds a bit of water, and they should start showing up within 1-3 weeks. That’s it! Then, simply let your plant grow until it is about 1’ tall and transplant it to its final destination.
I want to include a note on grafting because of some exciting practices that produce wonderful and unique trees.
Because each tree has its own flowers unique to the variety, it is possible to graft branches from different varieties onto the same rootstock to produce a tree with different-colored flowers on different branches. The effect can be quite breathtaking.
Growing Plumeria is easy both in containers and in the ground if your climate allows it. They have similar needs to succulent plants and tolerate a range of soil and light conditions.
Plumerias make wonderful ornamental trees that add color and fragrance to the environment in which they are grown.
Planting Depth and Potting Needs
If you are planting in the ground, it has very modest needs in terms of soil. If you live in a climate where Plumeria can grow outdoors year-round, chances are good that your soil has a fair amount of sand in it, which makes for good drainage.
If your soil is very dense, clay-heavy, or compacted, you may want to amend the soil with some coarse sand.
Plumeria trees prefer slightly acidic soil. A pH of 6.5 or lower will make this plant happy as it will ensure that the nutrients in the soil are available for the Plumeria’s use. Make sure to choose a spot with good drainage. Soggy Plumeria roots can lead to root rot which is commonly fatal to the plant.
Dig a hole as deep and wide as the root ball, situate your Plumeria in the hole, and fill in any remaining space with the soil you previously removed. Water in so that the soil is moist but not overly wet.
If you live in a climate where the temperature falls to freezing, Plumerias will need to be brought inside in the winter, and so they will need to be grown in a container.
As a general rule, choose a pot that is one gallon per foot of tree height. This will give your tree some room to grow without being repotted yearly. Use a cactus potting mix or a mixture of soil with coarser elements added, and make sure to use a container with good drainage.
Plumerias are light-loving plants. They prefer to receive 6-8 hours of direct sun. It is preferable that these hours take place in the morning and that the tree receives some respite from the sun during the hottest hours of the day.
When grown in hotter climates, Plumeria can tolerate being planted in part shade, particularly in the afternoon. Plumeria should get at least 6 hours of direct sun daily.
When grown indoors, these plants need to be in bright light for most of the day, as they will not flower without adequate sunlight. A south-facing window is a great spot for a Plumeria in the northern hemisphere!
A newly planted Plumeria should be watered very sparingly. The roots should be allowed to dry out between waterings, which will encourage root development as they’ll start seeking out their own water source further down. Plumeria roots still do need access to oxygen to grow, and being in soil that is compacted or waterlogged will complicate this.
Once leaves begin to grow, watering can be increased to once or twice weekly for an outdoor plant. These plants should be watered deeply so that they can retain the water to store for drier weather.
When Plumerias lose their foliage and go dormant in winter, you can cease watering altogether. Plumerias do not need extra water while dormant.
Mature Plumerias are better off being underwatered than overwatered. In their native environment, these plants are accustomed to periods of rainy weather and periods of drought. As a result, they are able to store water and can tolerate a bit of neglect.
When planted outdoors, they will be fine without watering during times of regular rainfall.
In summer, if there has been a shortage of rain, and your Plumeria is looking wilted or the leaves are turning brown at the edges, it probably needs to be watered. The trunk and branches of an underwatered Plumeria will lack rigidity. This can lead to the appearance of the whole plant drooping.
Climate and Temperature
The ideal temperature range for a Plumeria is 65°-80°F. However, they can tolerate a lot of heat, and temperatures down to 40°F will not do any real damage.
Brief temperature dips into the 30s are generally not harmful, but Plumerias cannot tolerate prolonged temperatures close to freezing.
Plumeria blooms are signaled by an increase in water, sunlight, and warming temperatures in spring. They are tropical plants, so they like heat and sunlight, and as long as they get regular rainfall, they will look their best during the warmest months.
Plumerias do best in at least 50% humidity during growth periods. If your Plumeria is kept indoors, using a humidifier or misting it regularly will keep it happy.
Be careful to only mist the foliage and not the flowers. Misting the flowers will make them more vulnerable to the fungus Botrytis.
There are differing points of view on fertilizing Plumerias, varying from once per week to only in the fall in preparation for dormancy. Somewhere in the middle is probably the best practice.
I recommend fertilizing once per month to six weeks from spring through fall with a bloom-boosting fertilizer. Adding an Epsom salt solution once per month, on a different week from your fertilizer, will help reinforce cell walls, making the plant stronger as well as increasing the number of blooms produced.
Pruning and Maintenance
Plumerias are very resilient and can tolerate hard pruning better than most trees. If, for some reason, you want to start over with your Plumeria, you can prune it all the way back to about 1’ tall, and it will be just fine.
Reasons for doing this could include wanting to reshape the tree entirely or thicken the limbs up if too many have been removed.
In general, when doing routine pruning to maintain the size and shape of the tree, pruning is best done in winter or very early spring. This will avoid interrupting the blooming cycle. Pruning also encourages new growth, which is desirable during the growing period, but not so much when the tree is dormant.
Using sterilized tools, trim off any overgrown branches, leaving about 1” of the branch at the base to encourage more branching. If you intend to propagate your cuttings, cut them at an angle so that there is plenty of space for roots to grow. Cutting at an angle also helps to prevent the pooling of water and wards off tip rot.
Dead and diseased branches can be trimmed off at any time of year. It is best to remove damaged branches as soon as you notice them, allowing the plant to redirect its energy to new growth and eliminating the potential of any diseases present to spread.
All parts of the Plumeria plant are toxic, including the sap. This sap, which the tree will excrete when it is cut, can cause irritation to the skin.
For this reason, it is best to wear gloves and long sleeves when pruning this plant. The plant is very bitter tasting and typically unappealing to animals, so it is not as dangerous as other toxic plants.
There are many different popular varieties of Plumeria to choose from. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular varieties that look great in almost any garden.
Botanical Name: Plumeria rubra ‘Calcutta Star’
- Sun Requirements: Full Sun
- Hardiness Zones: 10-12
One of the most fragrant of Plumerias, Calcutta Star has a very strong scent that can be described as spicy and fruity. This variety was discovered in India and has bright pink, star-shaped flowers with a yellow pop in the center.
Calcutta Star is a slow grower, reaching about 12’ tall at maturity. The flowers are 3”-4” in diameter and bloom early in the season, fading gradually to lighter pink as the summer heats up.
Botanical Name: Plumeria Rubra ‘Gabrielle’
- Sun Requirements: Full Sun
- Hardiness Zones: 10-12
Gabrielle is a lovely, compact variety with a moderate growth rate. Her 3” blooms are a stunningly feminine blend of pink and white with a bright yellow center.
The petals on this variety are large, rounded, and sweet-smelling. The blooms have a pinwheel appearance. Gabrielle is a prolific bloomer that will flower from spring through fall.
Botanical Name: Plumeria rubra ‘Hilo Beauty’
- Sun Requirements: Full Sun
- Hardiness Zones: 10-12
Hilo Beauty has some of the longest-lasting flowers of the Plumerias. These deep red blooms have a wonderful, spicy fragrance, and they are generous about sharing it.
This is a taller tree and has a rapid growth rate, gaining about 24” per year. The flowers are large (3 ½”) and veined with a deeper shade of red. The buds are nearly black before they open. This is a truly striking cultivar.
Botanical Name: Plumeria obtusa ‘Singapore’
- Sun Requirements: Full Sun
- Hardiness Zones: 10-12
Also known as the Singapore Graveyard Flower, Plumeria obtuse is a lovely, rounded tree that is native to the West Indies. This is a fast-growing tree that reaches anywhere from 10’-25’ tall at maturity.
Singapore has creamy white flowers with a golden glow in the center. The flowers stand out beautifully against the dark green foliage.
Botanical Name: Plumeria Rubra ‘Sundance’
- Sun Requirements: Full Sun
- Hardiness Zones: 10-12
Sundance is another rubra variety, It has a spicy scent, and this one has a cinnamon fragrance to go with its coral-colored flowers. The pretty petals are orange in the center, graduating to pink at the rounded ends.
The colors of sunset appear in these larger (3 ½”) blooms. Sundance has a moderate growth habit, adding about 1’-2’ per year.
Pests and Diseases
While Plumerias are quite tolerant of environmental conditions, there are quite a few pests and diseases that they are vulnerable to. Most of these issues can be dealt with easily, though.
This fungal disease is specific to Plumerias and is caused by the fungus Coleosporium plumeriae. It is typically caused by too much humidity and not enough air circulation, as with most types of fungus.
It only affects the leaves, not the trunk or flowers, and it is easy to treat but dangerous to the health of the tree if left untreated.
Rust spores are transported by wind, water, insects, animals, dirty gardening tools, and even your hands. It is easy to identify by its powdery, rust-colored pustules. The underside of the leaves commonly develops yellow splotches before the pustules appear, so it can be caught very early if you’re diligent in inspecting your plant.
The spores penetrate the leaf tissues and prevent photosynthesis, which can ultimately kill the plant. Prevention measures include pruning to thin out the branches and to increase the air circulation in the interior of the plant.
If this fungus shows up, remove affected leaves and dispose of them far from your Plumerias. It’s not recommended to compost leaves with rust, as fungal spores can survive in the compost. Treat the rest of the tree with neem oil to ward off further infection. For more severe cases, a sulfur-based fungicide is recommended instead of the neem oil – but don’t use sulfur within two weeks of a neem oil application so you don’t inadvertently cause damage to the leaf surfaces.
Black Tip Fungus
This fungus is predominantly an issue in cooler climates, where the possibility of late frost exists. It is more damaging to younger, smaller plants, and mature plants generally are not badly harmed. If your plumeria is damaged by frost, the tips will become more vulnerable to this fungus.
Black Tip Fungus will cause the tips of the branches to turn black and die back. It can be unsightly and, to compound the issue, can cause the growth of black sooty mold and make the plant more vulnerable to bacterial infection.
Keeping your Plumeria in full sun, with good air circulation, will help prevent this issue. An early dose of fertilizer will help your plant rebound and grow new, healthy foliage. An application of sulfur fungicide is recommended, and if the problem persists, prune off the damaged branches.
Black Rot, also called Stem Rot, is a fungal disease that most commonly affects cuttings or plants being overwintered indoors. It is a quick death for cuttings, with the stems becoming soft and mushy inside and collapsing.
This is usually only an issue for new plants and cuttings, and once the plant has survived its first winter, it’s usually no longer a concern.
Powdery mildew is a common fungal disease that causes a white powdery appearance to the top of the leaves it affects. As the disease advances, it interferes with photosynthesis and causes a general decline in the health of the plant.
Conventional fungicides are typically ineffective in treating powdery mildew. Removing affected foliage is vital, and prevention is the best remedy. Avoid overhead watering and use a prophylactic fungicide such as neem oil to prevent issues with this fungus.
The sixspotted spider mite (Eotetranychus sexmaculatus) is the most common mite associated with Plumeria. Symptoms of these insects include deformed leaves and flowers, leaf drop, and yellowing or bronzing of the top of the leaves.
Ultimately, these mites will cause a loss of foliage and flowers to your Plumeria. Their fine webs can be found beneath the leaves that they feed on, so if you see these webs, it’s a certain indication of spider mites.
The use of horticultural and insecticidal oils is effective in treating an infestation of these insects. Paying close attention to the foliage in the fall may give you an early idea of what could be coming in the spring, and the earlier you treat it, the easier it will be to eradicate them.
Whiteflies are related to aphids and mealybugs. These tiny white bugs can be observed flying around when the plant is shaken or otherwise disturbed.
The main issue caused by whiteflies is puncture damage to the leaves, although it’s usually not severe. Their sticky excrement, called honeydew, plays host to ants as well as black sooty mold, which interferes with chlorophyll production.
These insects are difficult to control once the infestation is established. Sticky traps can be used if the plant is indoors. Outdoors, a good hard spray from a hose will knock some of them off, but horticultural oils are typically needed in the event of an infestation.
Scale insects feed on plant sap and typically congregate on stems or twigs, but may also be found on thicker leaf surfaces. Their piercing mouthparts puncture the stem, and they consume the plant’s sap within. They can sometimes cause stunted and distorted growth. The most common ones on Plumeria are the Coccidae family of soft-bodied scale insects. These tend to be difficult to recognize as their bodies are not segmented and have no distinguishable body parts – they just appear to be a bump!
While plumeria is typically resistant to most types of scale insects, a large infestation of Coccidae scale can cause damage to the plant. These are usually found along the leaf’s central stem or in the crook of branches or twigs. They’re quite small and may look like a tiny, pale pink bump when alive. When dead, they appear as a dark brown spot.
Scale insects can be treated individually by using a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. Touch it to the insect’s tiny body, and it will release from the plant. For larger infestations, it’s best to remove the infested twigs, branches, or leaves. Horticultural oil sprays may also be effective at smothering these soft-bodied insects.
These wooly, white, sap-sucking variation of scale insects like to congregate in the creases of leaves and, like other scale insects, pierce the plant’s tissues and suck on the sap. They can be seen by checking under leaves for white clusters of insects, and they cause leaves to curl and shrivel as they do their work. A few species of mealybugs also secrete a waxy substance that looks a bit like a cluster of spider webs.
To rid yourself of these annoying pests, remove any badly affected leaves and spray the plant well with a hose to knock down the resident population. Horticultural oils can be effective at smothering these, but like their other scale relatives, individual mealybugs can be removed with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.
Plumeria plants are a beautiful and fragrant delight both in the garden and as potted plants. Their stunning flowers have made a name for themselves as the traditional flower of the Hawaiian Lei, as well as the inspiration for a great number of perfumes and beauty products.
If you are fortunate enough to live in a climate where these trees can be left outdoors year-round, they are surprisingly easy to care for and propagate. As a houseplant, they need a bit more attention, but all the best things in life do!