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For Love of the Frangipani

The rose might smell as sweet by any other name, but not the frangipani. If you’re a lover of words, frangipani is something you’d find excuses to say, it’s so pretty, such a satisfying mouthful with its immediate poetry, its visions of tropical islands and soft breezes, silent temples and that elusive exotic something. Scattered frangipani on a stoop of steps or under a tree can make even the most desensitized city dweller pause. What is truly amazing about it is its everywhere-ness and yet it doesn’t fail to please, it never bores. When a restaurant designer or a boutique uses it decoratively, ew each time, it captures your heart each time. Less fussy than the rose, not even quite as poeticized, not as spiritually significant as the lotus, the depth of the frangipani hides right under your nose. Its heady fragrance fills the air and pleases the soul. It doesn’t require a vase for trees are everywhere. Its beauty lies in its simplicity – a creamy five-petalled blossom with a yellow centre melting into the petals. The word frangipani comes from the name of an Italian aristocrat in the 1500’s Marquis Muzio Frangipane, who claimed to have invented a perfume from the flower but in actual fact produced a synthetic something with a strong fragrance. The flower’s scientific name, plumeria, is derived from French explorer and botanist Charles Plumier, who introduced it to Europe.

Its other monikers Lei in Hawaii, Yasmin in Persian, Temple Tree flower, Champa, Egg Flower in Southern China, Amapola in Venezuela and the strange and far from pretty Dead Man’s Fingers. A tropical shrub the flower is most fragrant at night and most attractive to sphinx moths who come in search of the nectar promised by the heady fragrance, but are disappointed to find there is none.

It is not surprising that this simple blossom represents perfection. It comes in variations of crimson, bright pink, and yellow. According to spiritual texts, it generates a subliminal feeling of tranquility – which is true as gazing at them will prove.

The flower’s beauty has struck many people throughout history. The Mayans associated it with fertility while the Aztecs with high-status planting frangipani trees in the gardens of nobles. In Southern Asia, the locals believe they are home to ghosts and demons but Asian religions claim them for their temple rituals. Traditional Polynesian women declare their relationship status with it – worn over the right ear means they are single and looking to mingle, over the left if they are taken. Horror movie enthusiasts will enjoy the fact that its fragrance is associated with Kuntilanak – the evil vampiric spirit of a dead mother in Malaysian – Indonesian folk tales. All over India, the Champa’s fragrance is a favorite and released through incense sticks.

Today the frangipani is loved by one and all for the most straight forward of reasons – it is a delight to the eye and soothing to the senses. Blossoms scattered under trees on wet earth after the rain are a gift of nature, swaying bunches sing to the soul. If you are fortunate enough to live in one of the lands that the frangipani has chosen as home, count yourself lucky. You will ever be peaceful.