The white frangipani is a deciduous tree that grows to about 15 to 25 feet. Native to tropical areas, this tree blooms highly fragrant white flowers with yellow centers in the spring that some cultures use as a perfume. White frangipani is also cultivated in greenhouses or outdoors in the tropics for its aesthetic beauty and ornamental uses.
White frangipani’s Latin name is Plumeria alba. It is a member of the Apocynaceae family, which is more commonly called the dogbane family. This highly diverse family includes other trees that are grown in tropical areas like the Stemmadenia littoralis, shrubs like the beautiful Brazilian Allamanda schottii, and even some herbs and vines. Other relatives include the natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa) and star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides). All these plants, however, are flowering and most of them are from the American subtropics.
This plant is commonly called white frangipani, pagoda tree, caterpillar tree, nosegay tree, and milk tree. Most of its common names are drawn from its white flowers or from the white sap it yields when its foliage or branches are broken open.
Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones
The white frangipani grows best in USDA hardiness zones 10 through 12 and generally needs tropical conditions to survive. It is native to the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico, but has since been introduced to tropical areas all over the world.
Size and Shape
Though it grows quite slowly, Plumeria alba can eventually grow to be 25 feet tall and about fifteen feet wide. It has narrow branches that arch up and outward, and at the ends of these branches are bunched clusters of beautiful flowers during its bloom in the spring and fall.
As tropical plants, white frangipani grows best in full sun. Though they are drought-tolerant, they still require fairly moist conditions to thrive and should only be planted in a greenhouse or outdoors in tropical areas.
Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit
The leaves of the white frangipani, which grow to about a foot long, cluster in spirals on the stems and are generally a deep green. Like its branches, the Plumeria alba’s leaves yield milky white sap when cracked open. They are deciduous trees and therefore undergo a dormant period in the winter season—they lose their leaves and blooms before bursting back to full color when the rainy season begins in spring.
The flowers are one of the most attractive aspects of the plant: they bloom bright white in the spring with yellow centers and are quite fragrant. These flowers have five petals each and their aesthetic qualities often lead to the frangipani’s ornamental use.
Though in the wild this plant forms fruit in small pods, these pods rarely form when the plant is domestically cultivated.
These plants are great for greenhouses or can be grown in tropical gardens. If grown in an area that experiences frost, the white frangipani must be grown in a container and protected during the cold season. They also can grow by the seaside; in fact, many in the Caribbean naturally grow along the Atlantic.
Make sure to keep in sunny areas and avoid watering them too often—wet soil or poor drainage will be hard on Plumeria alba. Their soil should be rich and loamy. Fertilize twice a year, once at the beginning of their growing season in spring and once at the beginning of fall.
They propagate through stem cuttings. If you plan to propagate white frangipani, make sure to keep the newly planted stems in lots of sun in their infancy.
Maintenance and Pruning
Though it will grow fine as a free-standing tree, the white frangipani can be pruned to your specifications to fit into enclosed areas. In general, it is fairly tolerant of pruning.
Plumeria alba is susceptible to frangipani caterpillars, which give it the common nickname caterpillar tree. White scale insects, whiteflies, and mealybugs also can plague the tree: a good insecticide or organic methods will take care of them. In general, though, this tree has no major issues with insects.
Rust can be a problem, so watch for any signs. If kept in overly moist soil, the white frangipani can undergo root rot—watch for wilting leaves or unhealthy-looking brown spots.