The Frangipani is the only flower I know that is named for a perfume, rather than the other way round. It was a famous perfume in its day, invented in the 16th century by the Italian Marquis Muzio Frangipane. According to legend, the tree’s seductive perfume led to its discovery for horticulture by the French monk Plumier. Apparently he’d planned to travel the world and grow rich (an unlikely ambition in someone who became a Franciscan monk at the age of 16, in a monastery famous for its austerity but still) and was told by a fortune teller to “search for a tree that grows near churches and graveyards; its blossoms are the colour of the new moon; its fragrance will overpower your soul; if you uproot it, the leaves and flowers continue to grow. When you find it you shall be rich.*
Well, he found it, when collecting plants in the Caribbean region during the 17th century and though he didn’t name it after himself, others did – Plumeria. How it came by the common name of ‘Frangipani’ nobody seems to know.
The funny thing is, the description of the blossoms of this plant, as given in the legend, resemble the Australian native frangipani, Hymenosperum flavum, far more than they do the plumeria types commonly known as ‘frangipanis’ today.
For one thing, the Australian frangipani has flowers that resemble the ‘golden coins’ described in the legend, which plumerias do not. Hymenosperum flowers start off as a creamy white, deepening to old gold as they age. Thus a tree in full flower looks as if it’s had a great bowl of cream and honey poured over it. For another thing, the flowers of Hymenosperum, like those in the legend, have a much stronger perfume than those of plumeria species.
This is a very good small garden tree for many climates because though it originates in the subtropical rainforest it does very well in dry Mediterranean and warm temperate areas too. In fact, it generally does better, in purely ornamental terms. This is because in the rainforest it tends to grow tall and thin and straggly with very large internodes and sparse branches. Take it out of the rainforest and put it in full sun and it is more compact, bushy and floriferous. It flowers in spring, usually for about a month.
Hymenosperum flavum makes an excellent street tree, requiring little care after establishment.
HOW TO GROW
Where: Sun or shade but flowers better in full sun. Grows faster in good soil but will survive in just about any reasonably well-drained ground.
Buy: Available from most nurseries in Australia but overseas buyers might need to shop around a bit.
Water: Give plenty of water during the establishment period for faster growth. At least twice a week after planting out. After the first year, leave it to nature and only water during long, dry periods (more than two months without rain).
Fertilising: Feed with an all-purpose tree and shrub fertiliser in early summer and again in late autumn. Fowl pellets or blood-and-bone will do fine for general growth but a formulation containing phosphorus will encourage better flowering.
Pruning: This is the secret of growing a really handsome Native (or Australian) Frangipani. Tip prune right from the start after planting and keep doing this on a regular basis to the young tree to promote density and a good shape. The tree may not flower for five years or more – once it does, a good prune of the top growth after flowers have finished will encourage compact growth and prolific flowering the following year.