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Gardening : Tropical Plant Finds Welcome in Southland : Plumeria: It can be grown as tree or bush and produces lovely colors. It has to be protected from frost.

November 18, 1990|BILL SIDNAM | Sidnam has written garden columns and features for The Times since 1975

Earle and Margaret Deeble not only fell in love with the Hawaiian Islands during their annual trips, they also fell in love with the island's tropical plants--particularly the plumeria.

Indeed, it is almost impossible to visit Hawaii and not be impressed with the beauty and the incredibly exotic fragrance of plumeria blooms. A lei of plumeria flowers is often the first item greeting island visitors.

The Deebles, who live in Fullerton, wondered if they could experience the marvelous aroma and beauty of the plumeria in their own yard. They made inquiries on the source of plumeria plants and discovered that a friend had them growing in a greenhouse.

The friend was glad to give the Deebles a cutting, but he also doubted that the Deebles would have much luck growing plumeria plants in the outdoor environment of their yard.

That was 15 years ago. The Deebles now have these beautiful, fragrant plants growing in front, back and side yards. They have eight different varieties with lovely blooms in shades of white, pink, red, white with yellow centers, orange (very rare) and bicolors.

The plants have thick branches with tropical-looking dark-green leaves, which are large and pointed. The leaves range in size from 10 to 14 inches. Most of their varieties are deciduous and drop their leaves in mid-winter; foliage growth resumes in early spring and blooms occur from late spring until cold weather sets in.

According to Earle Deeble, even though it is considered exotic, plumeria is easy to grow in much of Southern California if it is sheltered from frosts and planted in a soil that drains well.

The plants will absolutely not tolerate a wet, soggy soil. The soil must be loose and drain quickly. The only plumeria plant the Deebles have ever lost was planted in a lower area of their yard where the drainage was poor.

Plumeria can be grown as a shrub or a small tree. In either case, the plants make a stunning addition to a landscape. They will thrive in full sun in the milder coastal areas; however, in the hotter inland valleys the plants should receive half-day sun. Earle Deeble recommends that, in the hotter areas, the plants receive morning sun, but be protected from the hotter afternoon sun.

In colder areas of the Southland, the plants need protection from temperatures that drop below 28 degrees Fahrenheit. The Deebles live on a Fullerton hillside where freezing temperatures seldom occur. The few times their plants sustained frost damage, they simply removed the damaged portions, and the plants continued to thrive.

If you don't have a frost-protected planting site, some protections will be realized by tenting the plants with plastic covers on nights that frost is expected. Ground cloths used for painting are fine, but the plastic requires some type of frame so it doesn't come into contact wit the foliage.

Always remove the covering promptly after danger of frost has passed. A flood light at the base of the plant will also give some protection from frost.

Although plumeria plants are becoming more available in local nurseries, the Deebles have grown most of their plants from cuttings. According to Bill Nelson, a tropical plant expert at Pacific Tree Farms in Chula Vista, the plants are easy to propagate from cuttings.

If you have a friend who has a plumeria plant simply select a branch during the plant's dormant period, make a cutting (any size branch), lay the branch in a shady area for four days to one week to harden it off.

Then plant the cutting vertically in a container of moist growing mix. The cutting should be immersed in the container soil to about one-half of its length. In about three weeks to a month, the cuttings will root and be ready for transplanting.

If you can't obtain cuttings, the plants are sold in 1-, 5- or 15-gallon containers in various Southland nurseries. Nelson feels that the best buy is the 5-gallon size as it will produce blooms quickly and is more reasonably priced.

If you don't have a yard, plumeria plants will do well in a large container. The Deebles have beautiful specimens in containers.

I have a 7-year-old plumeria on my patio that has thrived in a half whiskey barrel container. It produces hundreds of fragrant blooms which lend a tropical scent to my patio area and the blooms keep well in water for up to 10 days in an aromatic indoor bouquet. The container my plant resides in is set on casters and I roll it into the garage when I expect the temperature to drop below 28 degrees Fahrenheit on a given winter night.

As to proper care, the Deebles water the plumeria in their yard once a week. They water the plants in containers whenever the soil starts to dry out. They feed their plants with a 15-30-15 liquid fertilizer applied to the base of the plants at the start of the bloom period in the spring, and repeat the feeding several more time during the bloom period. I feed my plumeria with time-release fertilizer tablets in the spring.

If allowed to grow in the yard unchecked, most plumeria varieties will reach a height of 10 to 15 feet. Plant size may be easily controlled by pruning during the dormant season; use cuttings to propagate new plants.

The Deebles have not only beautified their own yard with plumeria plants, they have given cuttings to friends, and friends of friends. Many plumeria plants from original Deeble cuttings now thrive in Fullerton yards. And although you won't confuse Fullerton with Honolulu, the flora is definitely becoming more tropical.

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