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The genus Plumeria includes a handful of species of trees and shrubs, all of them native to the New World tropics (the West Indies, Mexico, and Central and South America), that are renowned for their beautiful and fragrant flowers (Mabberley 2008). To many, Plumeria flowers (or frangipani, as they are often known in English), capture the essence of the beauty of the tropics. Plumeria--especially P. rubra and P. obtusa--are widely planted as ornamentals throughout the tropics, especially in southern and southeastern Asia, and many different cultivars have now been developed (as can be seen here). Plumeria alba is the national flower of Nicaragua. Plumeria is the national flower of Laos and (although not native even to the Asian continent) has acquired major cultural significance in Laos and neighboring countries, as is evident from a search on YouTube for "Dok Champa" (Plumeria flower). In Hawaii, millions of P. rubra flowers are produced and sold each year for use in leis (traditional floral necklaces).
Plumeria rubra is a small (to 8 m tall) ornamental tree with milky juice (latex) that is widely cultivated for its beautiful clusters of very fragrant large, tubular flowers. The flowers are often red, rose-colored, or purple-tinged, but some cultivars have yellow flowers or are white with a yellow mark at the base of each lobe, among other color combinations. White-flowered cultivars are sometimes mistakenly referred to as P. alba, but P. alba has narrower lance-shaped leaves (elliptical in P. rubra) that are densely white hairy beneath. (Little and Wadsworth 1964) Plumeria rubra flowers produce no floral nectar reward, but appear to be generalized mimics of other hawkmoth-pollinated flowers. Haber (1984) found that P. rubra was possibly the most abundant hawkmoth-pollinated plant in tropical deciduous forests of Costa Rica during much of its extended blooming period. However, he found that visitation rates and fruit set were exceptionally low and that hawkmoths in a flight cage quickly learned to avoid nectarless Plumeria flowers. (Haber 1984)
Plumeria alba is a conspicuous component of many tropical dry forests in the Caribbean and is well known for its association with the hawkmoth Pseudosphinx tetrio, for which it is a primary host. Plumeria alba is common in the scrub forest habitat found on many Caribbean islands. Plumeria alba trees are 3 to 7 m in height, with thick stems that produce abundant, white, milky latex from the leaves, stems, and flowers. The leaves may be 1.5 to 5 cm wide and more than 30 cm long and (like those of P. rubra) are alternately arranged and often clustered at branch tips. (Little and Wadsworth 1964; Santiago-Blay 1985; Sloan et al. 2006 and references therein)
The genus name Plumeria is in honor of the French Franciscan monk and botanist Charles Plumier, an important 17th century botanical explorer.