15 Apr 2014

The Plumeria Plant

By Jorge Ventocilla

This is a good opportunity for talking about the plumeria or frangipani plant, better known as “caracucha” in Panama. This plant grows in different regions between Mexico and Panama, and it is blooming season here right now. A few days ago, on my way to Biomuseo, I saw one of these plants standing tall and in full bloom.

I have no idea of where the word “caracucha” comes from, but I know there must be a meaning to it. On the other hand, frangipani comes from the French word “frangipanier” (coagulated milk), in reference to the sap of the plant. Its common name is plumeria (after Charles Plumier, 1646-1704, French missionary and botanist who worked in the Caribbean). This species is classified as rubra, which comes from a Latin word, referring to the color of its flowers.

It is native to Panama’s dry zones, it is hardly seen in the forests near Panama City. It is mostly seen as ornament in gardens and streets. Through hybridization and cultivation, flowers can be found not only in white, but also pink and yellow.

Some of my colleagues at the Smithsonian Institute say that a rare species, Allomarkgrafia plumeriiflora, can be found near Parque Nacional Soberanía, on the Pipeline Road. They say this species has leaves identical to the those seen on plants near Panama City.

It is grown in Hawaii for its beautiful flowers. That region alone exports approximately 100 different varieties of plumeria. Its fragant flowers are used in Hawaii and in Java for making necklaces to honor guests. Flowers are eaten, after cooking them with sugar. In North America, it is used in a number of body products (body fragrances, lotions and creams …the “Body Shop”  type), including massage oils. Its wood is hard and compact, with a fine texture in a yellowish brown tone with dark purple marbling.

In Alanje, Chiriquí, these flowers are used as ornament during Holy Week. Botanist Maria Stapf, from Alanje, tells me that women and children make palm tree leaves bouquets crowned with plumeria flowers. They also make “pomo”, which is a pumpkin covered with flowers used as an ornament for religious celebrations.  This tradition has been passed down from generation to generation in Alanje and, for it to continue, it is necessary to grow trees that produce flowers in different colors. This is another example of the benefits of reforestation.

In some places in Mexico, this plant is called “flower of the temple”. This name is also used in Tropical Asia, where the flowers from this plant are used for embellishing Hindu temples. It is interesting to know that these plants that are common here are also used in such distant places for honoring guests and pleasing the gods. A poet once said that the fragrance of plumeria is “heaven’s scent grown on earth”.

English translation by Sara I. Melo D.

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