The Detonation of Plumeria

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The Detonation of Plumeria

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island , Kauai , Maui , Oahu
Mar 07, 2014

"Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth."   Diane Ackerman

For many of our Facebook followers, I’ve recently learned, the quintessential scent that represents Hawaii is plumeria. 

There. Did that single word send you tumbling into a memory of Hawaii? Maybe your first visit when you stepped off the plane in Honolulu. Maybe when your daughter or nephew or cousin graduated from high school or college? Maybe a botanical garden you visited. Plumeria is so ubiquitous in Hawaii—in every yard, around every corner—that it pervades the air. You may not even remember your first whiff. Perhaps it even flowed from a bottle of hand lotion.

As many as 14 different species and hundreds of varieties of plumeria exist in the world. It’s native to parts of Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. 

Interestingly enough, the plumeria’s scent varies widely. It has been described as fruity—like peaches or grapes. It has been likened to other flowers, including roses, honeysuckle, and gardenia. It harkens memories of coconut, spices and, even, baby powder. My guess is this explains the blossom’s universal appeal--everyone can find a pleasing note in a single whiff.

According to David Choo in an article for Hana Hou, the oldest known plumeria tree was introduced to Hawaii from Mexico by Dr. William Hillebrand in 1860. Hillebrand was doctor to the royal family and an avid botanist.

My husband has a thing for plumeria. The very first tree we planted in our yard was a plumeria cutting—really, just a stick—that I gave him for our anniversary one year. Now, the scent from our tree’s blossoms stops him in his dog-walking tracks. E doesn't give me flowers in the usual sense, but he plucks one almost daily and drops it on my desk.

In Aztec times, my husband’s actions would have gotten him killed. Aztecs considered plumeria blossoms so sacred that anyone caught luxuriating in the scent of blossoms after they had been offered up to their gods was executed. I don’t know how. I hope death came swiftly. And I hope the offender was inhaling the beguiling scent as they expired.

I’m glad we live in Hawaii, where the blossoms are strung on lei and given to friends and family for arrivals, departures, graduations, housewarming gifts, anniversaries, birthdays, and for no reason, at all, save sharing the elixir of scent. The blossom is immortalized in gold and silver jewelry—the cheap kind you’ll find at ABC stores and high-end jewelry stores, as well. The scent is bottled—in perfumes, lotions, shampoos and soaps. But you’ll also find the flower’s likeness in all kinds of art, including the tattooed arms of many islanders and visitors alike.

Ours is the yellow-hearted Common Yellow. It throws off cantaloupe-sized bouquets of blossoms. A few years ago, my husband arrived at home with another lifeless-looking stick. This, it turned out, was the red plumeria.

According to Choo, the red plumeria arrived in Hawaii in 1931, about the same time as the snow-white Singapore, an evergreen species. These three make up the dominant plumeria blossoms you’ll find in Hawaii. 

Plumeria is one of the most common flowers you’ll find in Hawaii—and it grows on a tree. One reason for its popularity is its long growing season—from April to November. I’ve already noticed a few sparse blossoms on trees around the islands. As I write this, that first plumeria tree that I gifted my husband—and from which he gifts me with single blossoms daily in season—is budding. And just thinking about my husband’s daily ritual makes the heady and distinct scent that is plumeria rush to the forefront of my consciousness. The whole idea of it makes me smile.

What about you? What memories do you have of plumeria?


Susan | Mar 08, 2014 07:30 AM

My favorite image of the plumeria popped up right away. Years and years ago, when we first lived in Hawaii, in Navy housing in Pearl Harbor, Andee was just a tyke, about 2 years old. She was a darling curly-headed blond, as sweet as any 2 year old can be. We had a full-size plumeria tree in the back yard of our single story duplex that, as I recall, must have been a Common Yellow, from your description. Charlie picked up Andee and gently placed her on a sturdy limb and snapped her photo, with the tree full of blooms and one tucked behind her ear. I wonder where that picture is, besides firmly embedded in my mind...

Malia Yoshioka | Mar 08, 2014 10:55 AM

In my grandma's yard there was a beautiful plumeria tree, with huge bursts of flowers every year that seemed to outlast the season. She also had a pakalana vine growing next to it and gardenia just on the other side of the yard. I've always wished that I inherited her green thumb, although I'm getting better. Maybe when I get home I'll try to see if I could get a pakalana vine to grow... There's something about those fragrant blossoms and the lei they evolve into... Actually, when I think of plumeria I recall the Kaanapali Beach Hotel on Maui. We had stayed there for Mother's Day one year and I remember walking into the back lawn in the evening and although it was pitch black, I could smell the plumeria fragrance everywhere, even before I could see them. Heavenly!

pam Woolway | Mar 10, 2014 07:27 AM

Coincidentally our first tree, like yours was a plumeria stick snapped off a neighbor's tree. That was 12 years ago and today it's 10 feet high with a breadth of branches as far across. What generosity! And I love that Diane Ackerman quote to accompany! So true.

Patty Carlson | Mar 10, 2014 03:58 PM

I fell in love with the Plumeria flower so much and the wonderful colors while in Hawaii, I got a tattoo of a Plumeria flower with each petal done in a different color making a rainbow for me to forever remember Hawaii!

Kimm Baersch | Mar 10, 2014 04:09 PM

My first trip to Hawaii, when I was not yet 16, is filled with memories of the scent of Heaven, yes Plumeria's. I spent that summer in Kona Hawaii on a street named Plumeria in a house surrounded by them. That was nearly 40 years ago. I bought a stem from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. about 4 years ago. After 3 years of tender loving care, and not a single bloom, my baby finally bloomed. Last year, we had blooms until Thanksgiving. A little slice of heaven right here in West LA!

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