Plumeria

Plumeria expands when it is pruned.

If I accidentally chop off my forefinger while slicing a lime for five o’clock cocktails, I will never grow another. However, if my neighborhood skink loses her tail to a local bird, she will regenerate a new tail to replace it.

Cut a branch of the plumeria pudica tree, put it in dirt, and it will clone itself into a whole new tree. Do wear gloves when handling the plant as it is in the Apocynaceae family of poisonous plants. In fact, gardeners should always wear gloves as the sap of many plants can cause dermatitis reactions. If a plant or a lowly lizard can regenerate, why doesn’t a highly evolved human? (This brings up the ethical problem of who gets cloned? Of course, the thought of cloning some humans is appalling.)

The study of regenerative medicine is hunting for the answer to that question. They started by looking at the primitive stem cell that can transform itself into any kind of human cell. Scientists experiment with the cells found in the discarded placenta of newborns.

Many plants have the ability to grow new versions of themselves. Cuttings can often be rooted in a glass of water, such as with plumbago, but plumeria will develop black fungus and rot in water. Plumeria is used to growing in dry winters where it gets no water for months.

The cut branch will ooze white sap which needs to dry up before it is planted. If the tree is pruned in winter, it will sprout two new branches and develop into a thicker, wider tree. There is no chance that I will sprout two new forefingers.

I was wading in the shallow side of the island 10 years ago when I found a glaringly white starfish on the sandy bottom. I picked it up by one of its legs. Sensing danger, it immediately shed the leg and flipped its body back into the water. I was left holding a detached leg while the starfish escaped. I was horrified. I had no intention of hurting the animal and unwittingly committed the very act that I wanted to avoid. The starfish will grow another leg. I remain taxed with a vivid, unforgettable memory that is still shocking, even after a longtime.

Plumeria is often called frangipani. It was colloquially called that because a famous glove maker in the 1500s, Madam Frangipani, used the perfume from the flower to disguise the smell from tanning the leather of her soft gloves.

Try it yourself. Perfume your gardening gloves. Use your favorite fragrance or slather on the hand cream before sliding on the gloves. You can call back the presence of Catherine de Medici and the glory of Italian courts.

Getting the perfume was tricky. Plumeria’s white flowers do not have an odor during the daylight hours. Propagators visit during the night. Why bother to expend the energy needed to produce perfume during the day when it is only effective during the night?

I imagine a couple taking a romantic garden walk in the evening, holding hands and stopping for a kiss every few minutes. Suddenly, they are enveloped by fragrance and they realize the frangipani flower produces its heavenly perfume only at night.

Plumeria are pretty clever. There are many varieties of different colored flowers. Not all of them produce perfumes. Key West red plumeria has a very faint odor during the day. The white flowers attract the attention of insects during the dark night light. These powerful smells also are a help identifying the nectar source. Strong odors are frequently used in oils and creams but are often not identified.

Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. Her books “Plants of Paradise” and award-winning “Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys” and the newest addition, “Sexy Shrubs in Sandy Soil,” can be found at the Garden Club. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For information about plants, visit a compilation of previous columns at http://www.keywestgardenclub.com, Robin’s Columns.

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