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Fragrant Frangipani Fans

Clusters of rich, pink flowers decorate its branches, sprinkled among the foliage. Yes, I’m talking about the frangipani tree! I recall that when I was very young, I loved to pick up fallen frangipani flowers and admire them. I’m sure many of you have done the same! I’ve always admired the beauty of the frangipani tree. So, allow me to share more about it with you!

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Photo of the frangipani plant outside the University Health Centre in NUS

There are a few different species of frangipani, which come in a range of colours: red, yellow, white and pink. The species of frangipani commonly found in Singapore is the plumeria rubra. ‘Plumeira’ refers to the genus of the flower, while ‘rubra’ means red in Latin. It first appeared in parts of South and Central America. In Singapore, you can find the frangipani along roadsides, as well as in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It is also found near Buddhist temples as the frangipani plant is a symbol of rebirth.

Interestingly, plumeria rubra produces no nectar, attracts pollinators with a unique floral scent which is more noticeable at night. This is how pollinators are fooled into pollinating the frangipani plants’ flowers. Sneaky, isn’t it?

If you thought that the frangipani plant was completely harmless, you’re about to get a shock! The frangipani tree contains poisonous “milky” sap, even in the leaf stems. This could irritate your skin and cause rashes. To prevent such a case, let’s not pluck leaves or flowers which are still on the frangipani tree! It is important to leave the plant alone so that we may prevent injury to ourselves and preserve the plant’s beauty.

There is a well-known spirit in Singapore – the Pontianak. A figure from Malay lore, she is an Asian vampire hungry for vengeance for wrong-doings to herself after dying during childbirth. She can make even the strongest among us tremble just thinking about her. Perhaps it is her frighteningly long, claw-like nails, or her glowing red eyes. It is said that the fragrant frangipani flower smell will hit your nose at night, right before the Pontianak pounces on her victim. There is little hope of escaping her claws. She sure is spooky!

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Boo! (Art: Chern Ling)

On the flipside, in Singapore’s context, the frangipani flower holds particular significance to the Hindu community. The frangipani flower symbolises love and loyalty to your spouse in Hindu culture. Hence, it is usually included during wedding ceremonies, to welcome the couple as they embark on their journey into marriage and their future together. Frangipanis are also used as decorations and in perfume production.

Evidently, the frangipani is a plant that is deeply rooted in Asian culture. Different cultures could have different perceptions of what the frangipani symbolises. To end off, here is some food for thought: What does the frangipani represent to you?

Written by: Fang Ning