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A lasting passion for plumeria

Times Staff Writer

Arturo Martinez shows off photographs of plumeria petals the way most men his age flaunt portraits of their grandchildren. “Look how magnificent this one is,” Martinez, 59, coos from the living room of his Hollywood home.

He describes the hardy trees with their richly scented flowers in traits reserved for the finest humans. Faithful: “I can count on them blooming.” Gentle: “Their feeders and roots won’t buckle sidewalks.” Friendly: “No thorns!” Grateful. Well-behaved. Rewarding.

And forgiving: “I could neglect them, forget them, not be that caring,” he says, “and yet they give me these beautiful, fragrant flowers.”

Ignore his plumerias? Seems unlikely. Martinez spends hours on weekends tending to them and checks in on them “as if they were children in a kindergarten” before and after going to work as president of cosmetics maker Joar Labs in Glendale.

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These are his “babies,” as he refers to 133 potted plumerias outside the garage behind his house. On a concrete slab where cars could be dripping oil, he has created a plantation of trees with strong Y-shaped branches reaching up and out in all directions.

Their containers, arranged in a ragged square, block access to half of the garage. But convenience doesn’t matter to Martinez. Here, his plants get the daylong sun they need to sprout crowns of colorful blooms.

To pack them all into limited space, he has clustered the blue containers so closely that it’s impressive to see Martinez and his size 9 shoes maneuver among them. Beneath a canopy of greenery, he ducks under rubbery limbs, straddles over barrels and points a toe between them to find an open spot.

“It’s tight, but I can still come to the rescue of anyone in trouble,” he says, removing a five-petaled blossom from a stalk as gently as one would caress a child’s face. A drop of milky sap falls into his hand. “They cry when you break a limb or tear them.”

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Martinez is not the only one who gets reverential when talking about plumeria. Just tap the shoulders of hobbyists attending one of the growing number of plumeria club gatherings and see smiles widen when they describe the plant’s scented petals and growing ease.

The Plumeria Society of America, based in Houston, was started by three women who couldn’t find the plant they craved in 1979.

Now the once-exotic import is stocked at Armstrong Garden Centers, Home Depot and other chains. Gallon-sized trees and shrubs sell for less than $15. Rare, named varieties are sold at specialty nurseries such as Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar and Sunset Boulevard Nursery in Los Angeles; they start at about $20 for a gallon pot. For the truly devoted, a cutting of ‘Queen Victoria,’ a new pink cultivar, can cost $200.

Membership in the Plumeria Society has been as high as 525 but has slipped to 300 in recent years because of a spurt of regional clubs.

Bud Guillot of Huntington Beach, one of the founders of the 250-member South Coast Plumeria Society, which formed four years ago, stumbled upon his first plumeria half a century ago at a military surplus store. Cuttings were stuffed next to tents and mess trays. He bought one for less than a dollar and started experimenting when no one he asked knew what to do with it. In time, trial and error paid off; his orange-centered ‘Guillot’s Sunset’ is famous.

The Southern California Plumeria Society, whose 265 members meet once a month at Balboa Park in San Diego, also launched four years ago, when Lakeside resident Carl Herzog, his wife, Joy, and four friends decided it was time to spread the word. The Herzogs got hooked on plumeria while vacationing in Kauai, Hawaii, two decades ago. They brought home a stick, put it in the ground on their 2-acre property and let it go. Now they have 2,000 plants.

Most people think plumeria is native to Hawaii because it thrives in the relentless sun and porous soil, and because most leis are made from its distinctive petals. But it was originally from tropical Mexico, Central America and Caribbean islands and was named after botanist Charles Plumier, who introduced it to France in the 17th century. Plumeria has since spread around the world. It’s called frangipani in many Latin countries, pagoda tree in Asia and dead man’s fingers in Australia.

Hawaii, where it’s known as pua melia, made it popular. In the 1950s, Bill Moragne, a manager of a pineapple and sugar cane plantation on Kauai, crossed a pink-banded ‘Daisy Wilcox’ with a red ‘Scott Pratt.’

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If all goes as planned this year, Martinez hopes to send six of his creations to the Plumeria Society of America to have them registered. So far, the group has recognized 130 varieties in all. “Chances are good I’ll come up with a variety that no one has named yet,” he says. “I could be the godfather.”

Because plumeria seeds do not produce duplicates of the original plant, growers have been able to introduce new colors, petals and leaf shapes.

Yes, they are pretty, but collectors know the true lure of plumeria comes down to this: the scent. They snap off a blossom and, like wine tasters, sniff it to take in the sweet, fruity or spicy bouquet, then toss it aside and move on to the next offering.

But not Martinez. He picks his blooms reluctantly and cradles them in his hands. A snowy white miniature one with pointed petals barely spreads across two of his fingers in one hand; in the other, a robust yellow one blankets its oval petals across his palm.

He lingers over each whiff -- “like a mild floral perfume from Rodeo Drive,” “like peach ice cream” -- and gently places the flowers in a shallow glass bowl to scent his living room.

Like the plumeria, Martinez is a transplant to the U.S. He left his homeland, Cuba, in 1964, just barely out of his teen years. He also left behind his girlfriend, Maria Eloisa, but he promised they would be together. Within four years, they married and bought the Spanish-tiled home where they still live.

They liked the street and the generous frontyard, but its ho-hum backyard was more parking lot than park-like. It wasn’t even a yard but, rather, concrete separating the house from the detached garage. Martinez started embellishing it, adding an expansive stone lily pond that has held as many as 300 koi, a pink bougainvillea-wrapped pergola and a jungle of palms, golden bamboo and ornamental taro along the block walls.

Arturo, Maria Eloisa and their son, who is also named Arturo, would sit outside at night and appreciate the improved view.

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But something was missing, and Martinez couldn’t figure it out.

He tried to fill the longing by growing roses, but “their thorns were always sticking me,” he says, “and there were so many pests to protect them from.”

While driving through a neighborhood on his way to work about 20 years ago, he spotted a bundle of plumeria branches set out for the trash collector. He stopped the car and was flooded with memories of his family’s gardens in Cuba. His aunts, uncles and grandparents were fans of frangipani. They appreciated the ease with which the plants would explode with scented blooms each summer and that pests could be handled by spraying them off with water.

“To some people, these plants are mystical, even something to be feared,” says Martinez, “but to me, they’re lucky because they remind me of Cuba.

“When I smell jasmine in these blooms, it evokes memories of romantic places, like a honeymoon hotel. The ones that smell of honeysuckle remind me of a porch I sat on as a child. And the classic floral fragrance reminds me of a room full of well-dressed ladies wearing fine perfume.

“I live mostly in memories now, those that are real and those that I have modified to make them better,” he says, gazing at the original cuttings that now tower over him. “Plumeria concentrates those memories into one for me.

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The science behind the art

Arturo Martinez’s container plants benefit from his profession: He’s a chemist who puts his knowledge of phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen together with his willingness to experiment. A little bit of this, a handful of that. The result is a potting soil that his plumerias thrive in.

Moving water through the pots is essential because sogginess causes plumeria to rot. Martinez begins by laying an inch of pebbles at the base to ensure that water drains properly. He tops it with cactus mix, an organic material that doesn’t hold moisture.

To this he adds soil, which nourishes the plants and gives the pots heft so they don’t tip over. Perlite rock is tossed in for more aeration. He uses high-phosphorus fertilizer, and sometimes he puts in Nitrohumus, a high-organic soil amendment. He has also experimented with sandy soils that drain fast.


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