Plum Crazy

By  |  September 13, 2016
“Blinded from Eden,” (2016) © Polixeni Papapetrou. Courtesy of the artist and STILLS Gallery, Sydney “Blinded from Eden,” (2016) © Polixeni Papapetrou. Courtesy of the artist and STILLS Gallery, Sydney

I arrive at the SeaShell Motel in Naples around midnight. After an unexpected credit-shaming at the Budget rental car counter in the Fort Lauderdale airport, I’ve hauled ass through the Big Cypress Swamp in a downpour, enduring a static-ridden NPR station and the onset of McDonald’s farts, to find my late check-in instructions aggressively taped to the office door, as if by somebody familiar with Saran-wrapping frat boys to pine trees. I push open the door to my room, recalling one Travelocity commenter’s description of the place: scary at first. But it’s not scary at all; the room is spacious and clean. It’s just that a security light shines in the window like the angel of death all night, making it impossible to sleep without suffocating your face with pillows that another Travelocity commenter accurately described as flat.

In the morning, the receptionist asks, “Did you get your envelope okay? I was so scared it would fall off.” Rather, she yells this to me over an Eastern European couple who are fighting about a botched room reservation, a situation that turns out to be of the husband’s own doing, much like his unbuttoned floral shirt and plaid swim trunks combo. They may be the type of people who go on a beach vacation but never leave the motel pool. Not like myself—I’ve come on a beach vacation to hang out with plant nerds at the International Plumeria Conference.

Plumeria, also known as frangipani, is a tropical flowering tree most people associate with Hawaiian leis. The fragrant flowers usually have five petals, and, in the wild, most species of plumeria have white blooms with a yellow center. In nurseries and backyards, though, flowers of the species Plumeria rubra vary in color, size, and scent, with growers giving them fanciful names such as Fruit Salad and Vera Cruz Rose. A catalog of blooms—the industry leader is Jungle Jack’s out of San Diego County—might sound like a strip club roster if heard out of context: Essence, Temptation, Fantasia, Xquisite, Mystique. The plants are native to Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean, and weren’t brought to Hawaii until the 1860s, about two hundred years after they were first classified by the French botanist Charles Plumier, the original plumeria addict.

The Plumeria Society of America was founded in Houston in 1979 by three women who aimed to spread interest in the plant, then familiar only to those who’d vacationed in Hawaii. One of the women was a famous singer named Nancy Ames, but it was another, Elizabeth Thornton, the Queen of Plumeria, who was known for her breathtaking hybrids like Texas Aggie and Thornton’s Lemon Drop. 

Plumeria rubra alone now consists of close to four thousand cultivars (when PSA registration began in 1989 there were just fifty-one). Celadine is commonplace in many cemeteries, hence its nickname: Graveyard Yellow. There is no such thing as a blue plumeria, or a green or a black, though people keep buying color frauds on Amazon and eBay. Depending on whom you ask, there are now legit purples: the Metallica, the Purple Jack. There are reds that turn almost black in intense, scorching heat: Black Widow, Black Tiger. There is a bloom called Plum Crazy, a deep purple and red with upturned edges and slithery, eel-like veins, devastatingly beautiful. In the mid-aughts famed grower Jim Little released a vibrant orange-gold plumeria in honor of Don Ho. It is said that Thornton, a University of Texas grad, spent her lifetime hoping to cultivate a burnt-orange bloom from seed, but she never did.

While researching her best seller The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean came upon plumerias in South Florida but didn’t know them by name: “Along the path there were enormous tropical trees with pimply bark and flowers the color of bubble gum, the kind of trees you would draw in a tropical cartoon.” Trees for perpetual adolescence. Trees for people like me. 

 

The International Plumeria Conference takes place every ten years. The last time it was held—the inaugural convention, in Galveston—I was twenty-five and my experience with houseplants ran toward half-dead crotons and dank nightstand weed. My dad got me into plumeria. He’s an old surfer with a dozen trees in Satellite Beach, Florida, including a light pink bloom that he keeps calling Surfqueeny after my first AOL screen name. The Plumeria Society of America would identify it as a NOID—pronounced like the Domino’s mascot of yore and simply meaning “no ID,” origin unknown. Dad gave me a Kauka Wilder variety when I left grad school in North Carolina for New Orleans nine years ago. I did just about everything to kill it. The plant didn’t bloom until it was ten feet tall—the flower like a pop star’s fake nails, with long, narrow petals in hues of bright yellow and fuchsia—an umbrella with a clunky nine-foot handle. These days I have eight plumerias and I consider myself fairly obsessed, which is why I’m here in South Florida this May weekend: to convene with the especially obsessed.

Outside the motel, the morning sun encroaches on the putty-colored downtown drag. It’s 8 A.M. sharp and already so muggy that sweat dampens my suggested hat and suggested comfortable shoes as I walk toward the mob waiting for a bus at the Naples Botanical Garden to take us down to Florida Colors Nursery in Homestead, home to more than one thousand plumerias.

I check in at a folding table, where a tall, handsome woman in a plumeria-print aloha shirt and starched khakis greets me. “Hetty,” she says, by way of introduction. She has the side-parted, straight blond hairdo of a Gleaming the Cube–era Tony Hawk. Tucked behind her ear is a large red plumeria, worn to the left to show that she’s married. “Where are you from?” Hetty asks, sounding less curious than suspicious. She curates the botanical garden’s five-hundred-deep plumeria collection and helped put together this year’s conference.

“New Orleans,” I tell her. “But originally from Florida.”

“Nobody is really from Florida.”

“I’m a sixth-generation Floridian.”

At this impasse, Hetty walks away to greet the others. Lots of retirees are here, and more middle-aged people than I expected, all of them strapped into fanny packs and backpacks and bulky camera bags. Some sport raccoon-eyed sunburns; others have the type of doughy white skin that yearns to be pretreated with calamine for the various rashes it will soon acquire.

On the bus, I take a seat behind a Thornton disciple named Emerson Willis, an old guy rocking a straw hat and an enormous gold plumeria on a chain of Mr. T–level proportions. His wife, Nancy, wears a perfect black bouffant. Emerson has a flower named after him called the Mr. Ambassador; he’s pretty much the Johnny Appleseed of frangipani. The Willises are from LaPorte, Texas, but they travel around America in a twenty-nine-foot RV with a painting of a plumeria on the side, spreading seeds and cuttings. Emerson has planted trees from California to the very southern end of A1A in Key West, at a KFC/Taco Bell. He goes down there every spring to check on it. “They keep planting gumbo limbo next to it,” he complains. “You don’t want gumbo limbo growing around anything.” 

Another Texan, a retiree named Virginia, takes the seat next to mine. She’s into Grove Farm, a Hawaiian bloom known for its intense smell of rose and nutmeg. I tell her I have a San Germain, also known for its smell, that of honeysuckle. She pulls up some photos of her house in the country, her plumerias, her vegetable garden.

You can’t turn up at a conference like this and start showing off pictures of your Celadine without provoking some serious eye rolls from the elders, but that’s what I do. 

“They call that Common Yellow,” Virginia says.

“Yeah,” I say. I also show her my Candy Stripe and a hot pink NOID that first bloomed for me last year, but she’s not sure what it is, just common pink, or hot pink, or maybe something better, maybe a registered plant. She taps Emerson on the shoulder. 

“What do you think this is?”

“I’m not sure,” Mr. Ambassador says after examining it for a minute. “You always want to get registered plants. That way you’ll know.”

Out the window, Royal Poinciana trees and gators fly on past, but most everybody is on a phone, flaunting their tropical plants to seatmates bedecked in all manner of apposite flair: plumeria shirts, plumeria pins and barrettes, plumeria tattoos. From the front of the bus, Hetty announces over a microphone that it’s time for a raffle. She has a number of items to give away, but in the world of plumeria freaks there is only one prize—a good cutting. The easiest way to add a new plumeria to your collection is by chopping a limb off an existing one and rooting it. It’s also the reason there is so much theft involved with these plants; people will just roll up in front of houses and get to hacking. In his book Growing Plumerias in Hawaii and Around the World, Jim Little writes that Hawaiian farm producers suffered $11.4 million in agricultural theft back in 2004. Hundreds of cultivars and thousands of plumeria enthusiasts have emerged in the years since.

Hetty gives out a few mystery cuttings and some seeds. Virginia’s raffle ticket number is called, and she wins a bottle of Bath & Body Works plumeria-scented lotion. She squirts a little into her palm and sniffs. Everyone gets a swag bag: canvas IPC totes filled with mixed seeds, a schedule and lanyard, a water bottle and clip-on mini fan, the new volume of the Jungle Jack’s catalog—“a fourteen dollar value,” she informs us—and, for some, an IPC shirt.

“Now who didn’t get a shirt in their bag?” she asks over the mic.

I raise my hand. Apparently I’m the only one. 

“Did you sign up for the shirt online?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “No.”

“Well, that’s why you didn’t get a shirt.”

I don’t bring up the fact that under the registration Web page, the conference fee is said to include, bullet point: IPC polo shirt (purchase additional shirts for $20, add $2.50 for XXL).

Later, in line for our barbecue lunch on the nursery grounds, a hand reaches out and grabs me. It’s an older woman with a cane I haven’t met yet. She doesn’t introduce herself. She just says, “You should get your shirt.” She tells me it is, in fact, included in registration and “if you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”

 

The Naples Botanical Garden is 170 acres, every one gorgeous. The entry opens up into a lush jungle of plants that would make an ideal set for a velociraptor scene in Jurassic Park. Toward the conference room there’s an entire courtyard of shaded orchids and fountains that’s flooded with selfie-takers on the regular. There are succulents and ferns that look like intricate Alexander McQueen gowns, and there are the Plumeria Hills off in the scorching sun, where plumerias like to be.

The second morning of the conference, we’re supposed to tour the grounds for three hours, but even though nobody has checked Weather In Motion courtesy of the conference room’s free Wi-Fi, it’s evident the sky is turning root-rot black to the west of us. A handful of attendees, be they obese or just plagued with bad hips, set off toward the dense foliage on people-movers with speeds topping out at three miles an hour. It’s all very foreboding.

Virginia mounts a people-mover because she just had knee surgery four months ago and the trip to Florida Colors yesterday really took it out of her. We get through the Asian Garden and past some prehistorically huge birds-of-paradise, arriving at the Hills as a band of rain finally hits us, coming down hard enough to skin a cat. I’m safe in the trusty raincoat that gets me through every Jazz Fest, but Virginia has brought no rain protection at all. Her dress is soaked, her hair and camera soaked, even her hiking boots look like they’re turning into soggy paper bags. A golf cart bearing other ill-prepared evacuees comes racing up. “Hop on,” the driver tells Virginia, who asks me, very kindly, if I’ll man her machine back to the conference room. “Sure,” I say, staring at the drenched seat. I putter along the path but get lost on the way. There’s nothing more unsexy than being thirty-five, single, and driving a people-mover through a thunderstorm with water creeping under your raincoat, inundating your underwear. Eventually I roll up to the Caribbean Gardens, where several people have taken shelter in a little open-air house. They look at me like I’m insane.

A Hawaiian DNA expert is soaked to the bone and silently seething by a tree covered in more spikes than Rob Halford. A French woman is playing steel drums while her partner takes in several plumeria species native to the Caribbean just beyond the little house. When the rain lets up, we all make a run for it, and I abandon the people-mover at the hut. 

“We’d like to thank the Fogg Café for supplying these dish towels for all of us to dry off with,” says our emcee, Mike, as we reconvene a half-hour later.

When a slide show of recently deceased members of the PSA starts up, I kind of shiver—maybe from soggy-bottomed hypothermia after the people-mover experience, or just the general feeling of being a total outsider in a room of openly weeping people. Turns out plumeria enthusiasts are a close-knit group. They take trips together, to Bali and Hawaii; chat daily via online forums; and many of them have plumeria collections with multiple hundreds of cultivars. If I’m able to successfully root my new cuttings when I get back home, I will have twelve plumerias—but there is a good chance they’ll perish. My murder rate is about fifty percent. My preferred method: overwatering. 

 

Virginia introduces me to Terry on day three. Clad in snakeskin boots and a ten-gallon hat, he says that back home women call him the Plumeria Cowboy. With glasses on, he looks intensely pensive, but in conversation he keeps telling people, “You can’t use them big words with me now, boy, I’m from Texas.” The sun is back today so we resume our tour of the Botanical Garden. Despite the getup, Terry seems comfortably free of perspiration, whereas I can only be described by his spot-on commentary: “Boy. You sure know how to sweat.”

I never catch what Terry does for an actual profession, but he likes to weld horseshoes into folk art. He shows us his horseshoe boot racks, horseshoe crosses, horseshoe crosses that spell out amazing grace. He’s really into God. He tells us he didn’t think he was going to make it to the IPC and it is by the grace of God that he’s here. “I was in church, and I asked God to give me the money to get to the conference,” he tells me. “Not an hour later, a lady at church handed me one thousand dollars.”  

Terry says he does a lot of the PSA plant sales around Houston. He has the good ones—Mardi Gras, Aztec Gold, Raspberry Sundae, the Penang Peach.

The hills are alive with the sound of plumeria freaks saying I have five of these, and let me tell you, they’re the gift that keeps on giving, or I tried to root this one and it rotted on me. Irish Spring soap is strung from the trees, which Hetty tells us is to prevent deer from eating the flowers. Apparently plumeria are very tasty to certain animals, the American bulldog, for instance. “Mine used to eat the whole dang plant,” Terry says. Plumeria’s many known enemies include wild hogs, fungi, spider mites, and borer beetles. In Australia, there’s an endangered turkey that’s known to dig up and shred the plants to make its enormous sexing heaps. 

Dennis, an Aussie grower who pronounces flowers flarers, has brought us all twirlers, a contraption he’s invented consisting of fishing line glued to a tiny toothpick-size stick, which various people on the hill are now using to feel up the insides of the flowers, thereby encouraging the anthers to drop their pollen and produce a seedpod. This is called hand-pollination, and it can create new types of plumeria, since seeds aren’t always true to the mother plant. Cross-pollination is the surest bet for a new type of bloom, but it requires a scalpel and a surgical method first discovered in the 1950s by hybridization pioneer Bill Moragne, who named dozens of cultivars in honor of his family: the Cyndi Moragne, the Edi Moragne, and the crowd-pleasing Jeannie Moragne.

There are trees out here with seedpods already on them, which is something to behold—they resemble giant glossy beans or overripe bananas or anorexic eggplants conjoined at the tip. In the end, though, they all dry out and turn the same crispy brown like a giant dead roach that splits open to reveal a bunch of smaller roachlike seeds inside. It’s kind of gross, but seedlings are the only way to get a new, undiscovered bloom.

 “Let’s talk about seeds,” Mike, the emcee, says when we reconvene after lunch. “What’s the best way to store them?”

“Prescription bottle!” the audience answers.

“Yes, we have a lot of those around, don’t we?” 

 

I notice a few other attendees like me—people not in the PSA, interlopers, curious neophytes who have never grown from seed, who have no business even dreaming about discovering new cultivars. On Saturday, one woman interrupts a discussion about propagation methods and says, “Hey, sorry, newbie here. What do you mean by inflo?” The audience collectively gasps.

“It’s short for inflorescence,” Mike clarifies. “It’s the flowering part of the plant. Where you get the flower clusters.”

The IPC is divided into five or six lectures a day covering topics such as industry trends (dwarf hybrids and grafted plants are hot), plumeria DNA and biology, and how to register a new cultivar with the PSA. There are lei-making workshops and grafting demos—in which rootstock and scions are stitched together with sewing pins, rubber bands, and tape, like some sort of voodoo doll. 

It’s all a bit exhausting, and some topics verge on the depressing: One lecturer admits to having killed hundreds of cuttings in his quest to grow tropical plants in Kansas. An owner of Jungle Jack’s, regarded as the most successful commercial nursery in America, recounts the time the USDA destroyed seventeen thousand cuttings he’d shipped in from Thailand. Turns out this beautiful, buoyant flower can hit the lows, too. In the essay “Letter from Paradise, 21° 19' N., 157° 52' W.,” Joan Didion writes of a visit to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific: “One afternoon a couple came and left three plumeria leis on the grave of a California boy who had been killed, at nineteen, in 1945. The leis were already wilting by the time the woman finally placed them on the grave, because for a long time she only stood there and twisted them in her hands.” 

The IPC luau on the final evening perks me up. We are all adorned in our finest flip-flops and aloha shirts. We wear our Celadine leis. We eat from a buffet and drink from an overpriced cash bar. There is pineapple upside-down cake, another raffle, and an auction. A blackish red flower from Thailand pulls in $250. A new rainbow bloom, Hypnotic, goes for $275. A table over, I hear the Jungle Jack’s guy declare, “Orchids are over. Orchids are done.” He says plumeria could be the next bromeliad, which had a moment in the 1980s, much like Wham! enjoyed. Plumeria is already big in Japan, and the Dutch are catching on.  

When it’s dark out, we’re ushered outside onto the lawn for a performance, but the hula dancers have trouble with the PA. The women are invited to hula, then the men. “You can’t dance in cowboy boots,” Terry grumbles, though I think he’s actually excited. He heads toward the back and makes a big giggly ordeal of learning the dance. I have Virginia sign my IPC schedule like it’s a yearbook. Terry gives me a cutting of Miami Rose, a leathery pink bloom that smells remarkably similar to suntan lotion. I can’t promise that I will or won’t kill it, but I take it with me and resolve to do my best.

There are some things a plumeria conference can’t cover. The scent of San Germain wafting from your front porch on a summer night. The gunk of a rotted cutting between your fingers, that black mushy death. The heartache when a small plant comes crashing off your stoop in a heavy rain. The terror of a landlord with a hose. The joy of an inflo bursting up like a solid fist. The pleasure in learning that the plumeria, like the plumeria addict, should be left to her own devices.


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Gwendolyn Knapp is the author of the memoir After a While You Just Get Used to It: A Tale of Family Clutter and is the editor of Eater NOLA.