Natural La Jolla: The fragrant frangipani is in bloom!


Associated with tropical climates and swaying palm trees, the frangipani (Plumeria rubra) is a beautiful flowering tree that can be found here in La Jolla in a more shrubby version of itself. The gorgeous flowers vary in color from pure delicate white, to white tinged with yellow, to pinks and oranges. The flowers have five distinct curling petals.

The plumeria is a great drought and heat tolerant plant, and it adapts easily to San Diego’s summer climate; the trees lose their leaves in the springtime.

The flowers are often used to make leis in Hawaii and may be worn in the hair as a decoration. Some say wearing a frangipani flower over your left ear signals that you are married, while wearing it over the right means you are available!

In some parts of the southeastern United States and in the tropics, the frangipani is preyed upon by a spectacular caterpillar of the hornworm moth (Pseudosphinx tetrio). It’s an impressive caterpillar, too! Striped yellow and black, with accents of red, the voracious caterpillar will eat every leaf and flower on the plant, but it doesn’t kill it.

Once the caterpillars have gone to turn into drab brown moths, the leaves will sprout again.

Now is the season here in San Diego to enjoy these fragrant blooms!

— Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation who writes about the flora and fauna of La Jolla. She may be reached by e-mail at