Photos byKen Ige, Star-Bulletin
Jim Little shows off a new hybrid plumeria, the
Donald Angus Red. Below, Theresa Wilder blossoms
blend orange, pink and coral.
PLUMERIAS get very little respect. Hybridize an orchid and you get written up in national journals. Introduce a new ginger and the garden magazines are at your door. Develop a new plumeria and friends ask what you think of the Bishop Estate. It's because a plumeria tree is so easy to grow it's the meatloaf of Hawaiian gardening.
perfect for Oahu
This, according to Jim Little, is purely a local phenomenon. "On the mainland, they have whole clubs devoted to cultivating plumeria. They grow the trees in tubs and haul them inside during the winter. They're important."
Little, who is a professional photographer and an instructor in art and photography at Leeward Community College, is also a prominent hybridizer of plumerias and a successful commercial grower. He will release cuttings of a new hybrid and re-introduce cuttings of several old favorites that have disappeared from island gardens at the Foster Garden Plant sale a week from tomorrow.
He thinks plumerias are important, too, both as landscaping material and for lei making. Some plumerias are better than others. For lei flowers, a solid texture to the petals, a pleasant fragrance and about a 3-inch blossom is important. The color should be clear and consistent, and is a matter of taste. Color is more important in landscaping where it can be a brilliant accent against green foliage or white or brick walls.
The introduction is the Donald Angus Red, a cross made by the University of Hawaii and named by Little and horticulturist Richard Criley for Angus' many contributions to the university. Angus is a friend and mentor who taught Little much of what he knows about plumerias.
"Donald has collected plants from all over the world and has donated many of them to Foster Garden. He is nearly 90, and continues his interest in horticulture," Little said. The deep red flower makes a beautiful lei.
Among the re-introductions is the Paul Weissich, from a tree donated to Foster Garden by Angus about 25 years ago. Little and Criley named it for Weissich, who was then director of the botanical garden. Another tree was donated to the University of Hawaii and planted in front of the President's House on College Hill. The flowers are a rich gold with an orange tint, and the trees are excellent for lei and landscaping.
While the plumeria Paul Weissich still thrives at the President's House, the Hausten White plumeria is pretty much history. It will be remembered by long-time residents as the tree located at the entrance to the Willows Restaurant on Hausten Street, and was torn out when the restaurant closed. The white flower is one of the largest in the plumeria family and measures at least 4 inches wide.
Another plumeria re-visited is the Theresa Wilder. "It came to my attention last summer when a landscape colleague of mine asked me to trim a tree for him. It turned out to be this plumeria that I first heard of in 1975, but is hard to find now. The flower was named by Kauka Wilder, an associate in botany at the Bishop Museum. He named it for his sister-in-law. The flowers are a pinwheel rainbow of orange to pink and coral. It has good color intensity and I recommend it for landscaping."
The first plumeria was introduced into Hawaii in 1860, a yellow brought in by Dr. Wilhelm Hillebrand. Since then, natural hybridization has created many variations, Little said. "But as late as 1950, there were no records of any controlled crosses between plumerias."
In that year, William Moragne became manager of Grove Farm on Kauai. He was an avid lover of plants and had long wanted to experiment with cross-pollinating plumerias. It took him more than three years of constant experimentation, but eventually he produced a successful cross, creating 283 seedlings from which he saved 11. Some descendants of these plants will be available at the plant sale.
What will be sold are cuttings, unrooted, unleafed stalks the size of a tennis racket handle. They don't look particularly promising, but you should see flowers in less than a year. "Take the cutting home and harden it off for three weeks by leaving it in a dry, shady area," he advises. "Don't water it.
"After about three weeks, you'll find a callus, a thickened and hardened place on the cut, and the cut will no longer be white. Stand it, callus down, in a one-gallon pot with 2 or 3 inches of loose soil in the bottom. Cuttings don't like to be wet in the beginning, and they'll rot out with too much water."
Two to four months later, you will see roots appearing through the holes in the bottom of the pot. Dig a big hole where the tree will go, fill it with a porous material like black sand or cinders, and plant the cutting. Within nine months of planting, the cutting should flower.
Don't water heavily or fertilize during the period that the tree sheds its leaves. Wait until spring when leaves return. Plumeria will grow almost anywhere on Oahu as long as there is lots of sun to promote flowering. Trees growing in shade will have fewer blossoms. And be prepared for pests.
"For years we had the whitefly, now we have a fungus called rust. Things are cyclical. The rust seems to have wiped out the whitefly -- pretty soon something will come to feed on the rust. Whatever it is, it seems to wear itself out. You can spray or you can ride it out. I tend not to spray," Little said.
The whitefly leaves a white sticky powder on the back of the leaves, the rust leaves small rusty spots. Little has found that the hybrids are more susceptible to fungus than the species plumeria, the original varieties that once grew wild in Mexico and Panama.
Little grows these at his plumeria farm on the North Shore, where he is also cultivating some surprises for the future.
"On my last trip to Malaysia, I brought back 15 plumeria cuttings, including a double flowered one called Bali Whirl and another with peach colored flowers called Penang Peach. They will be released later when the trees are big enough to take cuttings."
So save some space.
Gardener's delightOffering landscaping plants, fruit trees, bamboo, native plants, ornamentals, house plants, succulents and more
What: The Foster Garden Plant Sale
When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 13
Where: 50 N. Vineyard Boulevard
Cost: Admission free
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