Issue 11.3: June/July 2008

The Giving Tree

story by David Choo
photos Chris McDonough

 

I’m standing behind Foster Botanical Garden’s restroom, looking for a legend.

The area that I’m exploring is in an obscure corner of Honolulu’s grand urban garden, pressed up against a perimeter fence. At the moment, it doesn’t sound very gardenlike. Just outside, noontime traffic whooshes by on the H-1 freeway. Overhead, a jumbo jet is making its final approach to the airport. But when I turn back to the garden, I persuade myself that the noise of all the engines is just rushing water or falling rain.

And then I see her—or him, or it: the oldest plumeria tree in the Islands. The ancient lady—I’ll call her Miss Foster for now—certainly looks like she’s getting on in years. Tangled and gnarled, she stands more than twenty feet tall. Healthy clumps of Pele’s hair moss grow from a couple of her branches, as do clusters of bromeliads and orchids. The plantings are probably an attempt to pretty up Miss Foster’s peeling, cracked bark and make her look like she belongs in this verdant forest.

The paperwork on her arrival is long gone, but Miss Foster, a Common Yellow (Plumeria acuminata), was brought from Mexico in 1860 by Dr. William Hillebrand. The German-born Hillebrand was the Hawaiian royal family’s personal doctor, the chief physician at nearby Queen’s Hospital and a renowned botanist. He traveled throughout the Pacific and Asia collecting plants, and in 1853 purchased thirteen acres from Queen Kalama and began planting exotic and native trees. Eventually the land wound up in the city’s hands, and it opened to the public as Foster Botanical Garden in 1930.

To be honest, if I hadn’t known about Miss Foster’s heritage beforehand, I would have walked right by her—in fact, I almost did. She is similar to the hundreds, if not thousands of plumeria trees that I’ve seen over the years. Plumerias are so pervasive, so common, so completely woven into the fabric of Island life that locals like myself, who see them everywhere, tend not to see them at all. We grew up with the plumeria: It was the first flower we learned to identify by sight and smell, the first one that we drew as children, the first that we strung into lei. The tree is easy to plant—just stick a cutting into the ground and you’re on your way—and it requires little care once it is established. It’s sad but true, I think: These trees are too common and too accommodating to win and sustain our love.

But after finding Miss Foster, I start to see plumerias again—everywhere. I take a meandering drive home and see golden-hearted Common Yellows in Liliha and snow-white Singapores in Manoa. In Kapahulu, there is a multicolored Lei Rainbow peeking over a chain-link fence, and in Kaimuki, one of O‘ahu’s plumeria hot spots, I catch a glimpse of the blood-red Hilo Beauty, the hot pink Royal Hawaiian and many, many others.

As I pull into my driveway and gaze at my own pair of fifty-year-old, twenty-five-foot-tall trees, I realize that after more than a decade of living in my grandparents’ house—first as a renter, now as an owner—I’ve never stopped and smelled my plumerias.


 

Depending on which text you read, there are between seven and fourteen species of plumeria in the world, all of which are native to tropical Mexico, Central America, parts of South America and the Caribbean. Luckily, not everyone is as unobservant and unaware of the plant as I am.

The recorded history of the tree begins with the Aztecs: They used fragrant plumeria blossoms in religious rites and considered the flowers so sacred that anyone caught catching a whiff of them after they had been offered to the gods was immediately executed. The Spaniards developed a similar appreciation for the tree, taking it along as they led their conquests of the Pacific and Asia and planting it in missions, monasteries and graveyards in far-flung colonies and trading posts.

Once introduced, the plumeria caught on quickly throughout Asia. Both Muslims and Buddhists came to consider the tree a symbol of immortality, since its branches could not only survive but also flower after being severed. The Hindus, like the Aztecs, offered the blossoms to their gods—though without the harsh taboos.

As revered as the plumeria has been throughout human history, though, it is now more loved than ever—today the tree is, according to Richard Criley, in the midst of its golden age. Criley is a professor of horticulture in the University of Hawai‘i’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, and he’s giving me a crash course in the plumeria’s recent history: As people throughout the world have discovered that the tree gives so much and asks so little, Criley tells me, sales of plants and cuttings have burgeoned over the last fifteen years. And, unbeknownst to most Islanders, Hawai‘i is at the center of this boom. Nowhere else in the world, not in the plumeria’s native Mexico nor anywhere in Asia is there such a wide variety of cultivars of the plant.

As we talk, Criley and I are standing in shin-deep grass at the University of Hawai‘i’s experimental research farm in Waimanalo. It’s home to a 2.5-acre grove that contains more than 200 plumeria trees and represents approximately 120 different species and cultivars.

“I know of a grower here who ships 18,000 cuttings a month,” says Criley. “If you go online, you’ll see cuttings going for eight or nine dollars. These are from common varieties that you find in people’s yards. But most collectors won’t hesitate to spend $30 for an unrooted cutting, and other very desirable varieties can go for $75 to $100. So you can do the math.”

Criley answers my elementary questions about plumerias very precisely and succinctly, as if he has been interviewed thousands of times. And likely he has. Criley is the acknowledged expert in everything plumeria, having studied the plant for nearly forty years. For much of his career, he researched and wrote about the plant in relative obscurity. But now he’s treated like a rock star when he attends plumeria conferences: peppered with questions, photographed with groupies. Some of his lectures have been surreptitiously videotaped and sold on the Internet.

“I get calls all the time from enthusiasts with a question about their plants, and then that question leads to another and then another,” says Criley. “When you read those discussion boards [on the Internet], you wonder if these people have a life.”

Criley tells me that plumerias are astonishingly fragrant flowers, with a range of perfumes unmatched in the plant world. Plumeria fragrances can resemble fruits, roses, gardenias, soap, candy, fresh air, coconut, spice, baby powder, even a wet, unwashed dog.

Criley walks me to a small, unremarkable tree with flowers that have white petals and yellow centers. He tells me to feel the petals. They are substantial, like very thin suede. Then I smell them. I’m momentarily transported to Honolulu International Airport, circa the late ’60s or early ’70s, and I’m on an open-air concourse, waiting for an auntie or uncle or cousin to arrive from the Mainland. When I tell Criley about the memory, he smiles and tells me that I just caught a whiff of the Celadine plumeria, a classic variety that is still the main flower found at the airport and in lei shops along Chinatown’s Maunakea Street. We continue our stroll through the grove. Along the way, Criley picks different flowers and lets me sniff them. It’s like revisiting old friends.

“Plumerias are very popular in Bali, and there you’ll see as many trees in people’s yards and along the streets as you do in Hawai‘i. But over there, they are all the same—white. In Hawai‘i, there are so many different kinds in so many different places,” says Criley. “How did this happen? It’s pretty simple: ‘Hey, Auntie, I like one.’ ‘Uncle, that’s one nice tree. Can I have?’ People shared.”

In other words, we Islanders were as generous as our trees. As cuttings were passed over fences and left on doorsteps, trees grew and flowers pollinated and seedpods dropped. We became the plumeria and the plumeria became us.


 

“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.”

 


 

In 1979, three women in Houston desperate for plumeria founded the Plumeria Society of America. Since then, regional clubs have sprung up in Texas, California, Florida and Arizona. There is another in Australia and interest in Japan and China.

Today I’m having breakfast with the man who has fueled the flower frenzy: Jim Little, the premier hybridizer in the plumeria world. He helped kick-start the Plumeria Society of America when he provided some of its first cuttings nearly thirty years ago. He’s gone on to create hundreds of hybrid plumerias in a wild array of shapes, colors and fragrances.

Even if you’re already a plumeria enthusiast, you’ve probably never heard of Little—and that’s just the way he likes it. Though he’s a giant in this plant world, the retired photography professor and now full-time plumeria farmer doesn’t make any public appearances or presentations. Nor does he have a storefront or even a web site. Instead, he receives and fulfills orders for plumeria via his post office box in Hale‘iwa.

“If you want anything from me, you have to mail me. A few of my old customers know how to reach me, but no one new gets my phone number,” says Little. “Some people go to the local post office, and they ask around about how to reach me. Jeez, that really bugs me!”

We’re dining at busy Café Haleiwa, and in between bites of waffle and sausage, Little expounds on plumerias with the enthusiasm and wonder I’d expect from someone who’d just discovered the flower. I’m surprised and more than a little relieved, because I half-expected that I’d be meeting the J.D. Salinger of the plumeria world. Instead, I got a sunny Mister Rogers.

Little, well into his sixties, is tall and fit. He discovered plumerias when he taught at Honolulu’s Punahou School in the late 1960s: After trimming the large Singapore tree that grew behind his house on campus, he planted the cuttings in old coffee cans. He took a trunkful to a local store, and they quickly sold out. Several years later, Little and his family moved to Pupukea to be closer to his new teaching job at Leeward Community College, and also so he could have more room to grow plumerias. He started with a couple of acres and built his collection with plants from UH’s Criley and collector Donald Angus. He also explored Island yards and streets, looking for more specimens.

“I’d just knock on people’s doors and ask them if I could have a cutting from their trees,” he says. “In almost every case, they said yes. I would come back from trips to the neighbor islands with suitcases filled with plumeria cuttings.”

Running out of space, Little acquired two more acres in Waialua. But he filled those up, too, and after the town’s sugar plantation closed in 1996, he was able to lease a much larger piece of land in the hills outside of Hale‘iwa. He keeps the site’s location and total acreage a secret, but he will say that on twenty-two of his acres, he has more than 400 cultivars and thousands of trees.

Although he’s been collecting and selling plumerias for more than thirty years, Little has been seriously hybridizing only for the last ten. He learned the basic techniques from Bill Moragne, a Kaua‘i sugar plantation manager and orchid hybridizer. On his first effort, Little got lucky. Out of thirty or forty “babies,” he got one that was a beauty: a plant with pink flowers shaped like pansies that he eventually named JL Pink Pansy.

After breakfast, Little surprises me again when he spreads his palms out on the table, leans in and asks, “So, do you want to see some plumerias?” I’m honored—and the immediate answer is “Yes.”


 

The view from Little’s farm is stunning. It’s the type of uninterrupted ocean vista that’s normally reserved for gentleman farmers, but here it belongs to thousands of plumeria trees. I’m in Little’s pickup truck, and our first stop is a Singapore. He pulls his truck up close, reaches out the window and plucks a blossom. It should be white with a small speck of yellow in its middle, but instead nearly the entire flower is bright yellow. The tree is a rare cross between a Singapore and a Celadine; Little and Angus found it in a Waialua front yard, and Little named the tree after the homeowner’s mother, Mele Pa Bowman.

We pull over and walk to the middle of a field where we find the JL Pink Pansy. It’s an elegant beauty, and it’s quickly evident why Little knew he had created something special: We pass by a Bridal Bouquet plumeria (Plumeria pudica), a favorite of landscapers which presents its willowy flowers in tight clusters.

We move into another corner of the field, and Little shows me a tree with lavender-colored flowers that have narrow, slightly squared-off petals. When I bend down to take a sniff, I’m stunned to smell grape Kool-Aid. Next, it’s a dark, almost-black blossom with wide elliptical petals; it smells like cinnamon. We visit one amazing tree after another until we find Little’s latest work of art, the Doric, an orange beauty named for his wife which took him eight years to develop. I admire its delicate lines and fine veins of flamelike color. This one, I think, could smell like a wet dog, and it would still be a star.

“How much do some of your more desirable cuttings go for?” I ask.

Little pauses. “Are you ready for this?” he asks. “My son just sold a cutting, something called Eclipse, for $500.”

My God, I think, money does grow on trees.

We walk to a little work area on the edge of one of the fields and sit in plastic lawn chairs under a small monkeypod tree. A gentle breeze blows through the grove and cools us, but instead of plumeria perfume, it brings with it the stench of a dead pig rotting in an adjacent field. Nevertheless, as Little stretches out and eyes his grove, he looks like a very happy man.

He tells me that something is happening in Hawai‘i: People want plumerias again. The flower-growing operation on the farm has increased significantly in the last several years, and he predicts that instead of the ubiquitous orchid lei from Thailand, we’ll soon start to see plumerias at the airport and throughout the city again.

“It’s strange how these things happen. The craze started on the Mainland, but it has circled back here,” says Little. “Isn’t it about time? I think people are getting tired of those orchids leis. The first thing people do is smell them, and there’s no fragrance. There’s nothing to them at all. But the plumeria, that’s Hawai‘i!”

On my drive back from Hale‘iwa, I take the freeway and rush home. I pull into my driveway, park the car and walk to my plumeria trees. I reach up and pick a flower and take a sniff.

It has a delicate, lemony fragrance that fades quickly. I sniff again, and it smells like birthdays, graduations, baby lu‘au, elementary school pageants, lazy summer days, the airport, backyard barbecues, yardwork, hello, good-bye and welcome home. In other words, it smells like plumeria. HH