Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Plum Crazy

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. (...)

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?”

by Gwendolyn Knapp, Oxford American | Read more:
Image: Peter Rowley