The life and death of great plumeria trees

For me, springtime doesn’t begin with the equinox on March 20. It starts much sooner, on the very first weekend in March, with a somewhat unlikely event: The Philadelphia Flower Show.

Every year since 1829, florists and horticulturalists alike descend on Philadelphia to create epic bouquets, arrangements, and “flower art.” It’s a pretty transcendental experience of color and creativity. Also, the smell when you enter the Pennsylvania Convention Center of thousands of flowers in bloom is worth it alone. Just take a look at this shot from this year’s show:

This year’s theme, “Flower Power” inspired some pretty creative setups at the Flower Show.

You might be thinking, this sounds like a very niche audience. But actually, a quarter of a million people make the trek to this week-long event each year.

I’ve been going to the Flower Show since I was about 8 years old now. And it’s become somewhat of a ritual in my family. Back in the day, my mom, brother, and I would take a “mental health” day off of school to visit the show. As I got older, I got permission to host a birthday party there, with my brave parents dutifully shuttling a dozen 11-year-old girls on the train downtown. How they managed to keep track of us all in the midst of the busy exhibition seems like a miracle, but somehow, we all made it back. I’ll never forget all of us belting out, “My Heart Will Go On” continuously for the entire 50-minute ride back to the suburbs. (Those poor, poor passengers…)

Later on, birthday parties became bridal showers, when my mom (also miraculously) kept perhaps the first ever secret of her life, getting another dozen of my (20- and 30-something friends) to meet me at the Flower Show with gifts and fascinators.


Growing from a stick

The Flower Show is divided pretty evenly between exhibitions (like the photo above) and vendors. All in, there must be 40 booths of vendors selling flowers, plants, orchids, garden supplies, and other cute paraphernalia. As a plant nerd, buying flowers and plants to bring home and grow was equally part of the fun. Each year, I’d agonize over which orchid to pick up for my home, and whether I needed an indoor succulent.

But, no matter how old I grew, one booth mystified and captivated me year after year: A group of girls, decked out with real Hawaiian leis selling a beautiful dream.

“Aloha!” they would say. “Have you ever smelled the frangipani?” They would hand over the blossom of one plumeria flower.

“Wow, this smells incredible!” you’d respond. “You grew these from….that?” On the table in front of the girls sat a pile of sticks, about one-inch wide each, with no visible growth or root structure.

Allegedly, this stick (right) will turn into a tree that makes flowers shown on the left. Sure…..

“That’s right. You can grow these flowers at home too. Plant this stick in a pot,” they’d say, “and it will grow into the a fragrant plumeria tree.”

A tropical paradise in your own home? Lush leaves and yellow or pink blossoms that smelled like my favorite Bath and Body Works hand cream? I was hooked. (In retrospect, this was quite possibly the first “scam” I’d ever been a part of.)

“How much?” I asked, tugging on my mom’s coat sleeve the whole time.

“$12 each. Or three for $30 and we’ll give you this ‘Hawaiian Magic’ fertilizer for you to keep your plant as healthy as possible.”

And so began the annual charade. We’d get suckered into buying three unrooted sticks, and then my mom, my brother, and I would eagerly head home and plant each of them in separate pots and wait for the magic to begin.

Usually, one was a complete dud and would never grow at all. The second one might grow a couple of leaves at best, but then we’d either over-water or under-water it, and we’d lose it to root rot or some other disease. A few times, I managed to grow a plant out to a dozen or more leaves. Once in high school, my plant even lived long enough to see the next flower show a year later. By then, I’d even repotted it and it had cleared 2 feet tall in my bedroom.

But never any flowers.

“What’s going on?” I asked at the flower show the following year. “I’ve been growing this plant for over a year now, and still no flowers. How long does it take exactly?”

The woman running the booth that year just grimaced at me. I’m sure she wasn’t used to people calling out their scheme.

“Well,” she said patiently, “you have to remember that these are trees, meant for growing outdoors in tropical climates. At your home, the conditions need to be just right. It may take three or more years of careful care. But just look, this plant here is only one year old, and see how it blooms!”

I scowled at her, knowing right away that I’d been had. Never would I see or smell the flowers of the plumeria in my own home. About one month later, my plumeria got an infestation of spider mites that killed it.

So much for that.


Plumeria, take two

It wasn’t until many years later, after college in 2012, that I tried my luck at a plumeria again. This time, I lived in an apartment in Brooklyn with little to no sunlight (and certainly no windowsills), so after returning from the flower show, I brought my stick to work and planted it in some soil.

Naturally, everyone found this to be endlessly entertaining.

“Don’t worry,” I told them. “You’ll see. One day, this little stick will grow up to become a beautiful tree.”

(After all, if you can’t buy into the dream yourself, what’s the point?)

A few months went by, and my plumeria started to grow leaves, as I’d seen it do before. We moved offices while I was on vacation, so I entrusted one of the developers to protect my plant at all costs, seeing that it was safely moved to our new locale. We propped it in front of a North-facing window with tons of sunlight on the 27th floor of an office building in the financial district.

And despite these strange conditions, it continued to grow.

It sprouted a dozen leaves, then extended a whole other branch out of nowhere. At just over a year old, I repotted it, gleeful at the progress. At two years, I repotted it again. The plant was now three feet tall.

When the weight of the leaves and the branches started to be too much, I rallied a couple of colleagues to accompany me to the local hardware store and design a “wooden stand” for the plant so that it wouldn’t tumble over.

Two and a half years into my plumeria’s life, it started to bloom. I was beside myself. It stood at about four feet tall at that point.

And it didn’t stop. With each bloom that fell off, it would regrow another, and the plant just kept on flowering. The small was incredible.

The third time we repotted it, I needed the help of four other people in the office to hold the plant in place and carefully place it into a new container without snapping it apart. We moved it from the 27th floor to the 28th floor, which had higher clearance of the ceiling in the office. I stopped calling it my “stick” or my “plant.” It was now officially a tree.

All in, my plumeria flowered consistently from September 2014 through August 2015.

By that point, the entire office was on “Team Plumeria.” It greeted everyone in the lunchroom each day and stood taller that I did.

My plumeria tree in the heyday of its blooming, circa July 2015.

To date, I tell you that growing this tree is one of my proudest life accomplishments.


New beginnings

Plants don’t live forever. And sadly, shortly after I left Stack Overflow in 2016, my plumeria died as well. It’d been a long time coming. The poor thing also took on a pretty nasty infestation of spider mites, and after six months of insecticides and wiping down the leaves, I didn’t know what else to try. A few good friends took care of her as best they could after I left…but it never bloomed again.

Today, there’s a ficus tree in its place where my plumeria used to stand. I’m happy knowing that at the very least, that tree is still a symbol of what used to stand there before it. And in some funny way, the arc of my plant growing, blooming, and dying also seemed to coincide with my time working at that company. It all felt very literary to me.

While I’ve remained incredibly loyal to plumerias, I haven’t grown one since the death of my tree in 2016. It took a lot out of me, and I didn’t think I’d have the right conditions (good light, big windows, lots of space) to grow one again.

But at the Flower Show this year, I’m happy to report that I picked up a new stick, and I’m finally ready to start from scratch. Except this time, however, I’m taking it outside on our roof when the weather gets warmer. I think it’s about time to introduce the frangipani to NYC in the summertime. Wish me luck.


Originally published at Dry Erase.