Fellowship of the frangipani
So many times I've seen a frangipani tree all on its lonesome! Without a garden to fit into. Frangipanis are happiest in company. Here we explore some of the many plants that grow well with frangipani. No matter whether you live in the subtropics, temperate or coastal climates, you'll find inspiration here to help your frangipani feel at home.
Even though the frangipani itself spans a range of climates – its companions rarely do. Companion plants will differ depending where you live, and this will depend on limiting factors such as winter low temperatures, humidity and incidence of frost. It's helpful for home gardeners to understand the climate in which they live so companions can be selected wisely. The first step is determining where you fit in.
Sub-Tropical climate companions
A subtropical climate is one with luxuriant foliage, with form taking precedence over flowers, lush undergrowth and spiked above with palm or tree fern fronds. The term subtropical is used here not in the strict geographic sense but in reference to climates where the summers are warm and winters are mild and frost free.
If the sight of frangipani’s contorted winter stems disturbs you maybe you need to think about a disguise. Try winter flowering poinsettias and bromeliads to distract you from naked stems. Birds nest ferns rest happily in the crook of branches. Epiphytic orchids will grow on branches and will flower when the tree is deciduous. Similarly a night flowering climbing cactus can be trained up through the canopy. Their fragrant flowers coincide with the frangipani appearing at night as the heat of summer builds.
Bromeliads grow well under frangipani. Photo - source unknown.
A recent trend with contemporary subtropical gardens is to use foliage plants in sculptural ways. Frangipanis, cordylines, elephant ears, succulents, cycads and flax are brought together in dramatic combinations. Bold foliage adds vibrancy, texture, dimension and drama. Designers call them ‘architectural’ plants because they have a strong form, colour and shape – we call them accents. Accent plants catch the eye, providing mini focal points throughout a garden. This accent can have vibrant colour, unusual form, tactile textures or interesting leaf shape. Mauritius Hemp (Fucrea) and Yucca (Yucca elephantipes) are tough and colourful.
Cordylines are evergreen shrubs and total winners for all year lushness. They have been hybridised to exhibit bright coloured leaves. They are tough and easy to grow from 20 cm cuttings and handsome when planted in groups, lines or swathes. Preferring semi shade they grow well under a frangipani and palms.
Foliage plants provide volume to the garden beds. Choose easy to grow plants such as monstera, philodendron, (Solenostemon scutellaroides), Giant Taro (Alocasia macrorrhiza), tree philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum), Black Elephants Ear (Colocasia illustris), colourful Coleus, Fijian Firebush (Acalypha wilkesiana) and Elephants Ears (Alocasia x amazonica and A. macrorrhiza). Taller foliage accents like giant strelitzia (Strelitzia nicolai) and NZ cabbage palm (Cordyline australis) provide spiky explosions.
Flowers are also essential in the subtropical garden and those with fragrance are hard to refuse. Showy flowers, nocturnal scent and recurrent flowering make the Angel trumpet (Brugmansia) impossible to resist. The only black mark against it is its poisonous leaves and flowers. In subtropical / warm temperate gardens it is hardly without flower in the summer and autumn months. In cooler climates it, like the frangipani, will have to be brought into glasshouse conditions or pruned back hard during winter. Depending on the winter lows Brugmansia will bounce back in spring. Flowers come in shades of lemon, white, pink and apricot and older specimens will have 500 flowers in a flush. It’s gentle evening fragrance is unsurpassed, particularly the apricot.
Angels trumpet, Abyssinian banana, clivea, agapanthus and museander. Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. Photo - Linda Ross
Use climbers to mellow vertical surfaces and cascade over and up through your frangipani, over walls, fences, sheds and arbors. They quickly soften any garden structure with their flimsy foliage and simultaneously provide intense colour. Climbing cactus with exquisite water-lily-like flowers love the company of frangipani preferring to climb into the interior branches and flower at the same time, although during the night, these are generally called Queen of the Night Cactus (Epiphyllum oxypetalum and Selenocerius).
Climbing Queen of the night rollicks through. Photo - Diana Cochran Johnson/Shutterstock.com
Some plants prefer to grow on frangipanis rather than under them. These are called epiphytic plants and they are happy with living up in the branches. Create hanging gardens in boughs and branches for a multi-layered tropical paradise. Tie these plants on with twine or stocking or rest them in the crooks of branches and they will soon establish aerial roots and make the frangipani home. Bromeliads grow happily on tree trunks and branches. Birds Nest Fern (Asplenium sp) love the dappled shade within the canopy of frangipani. They are content to grow on the main trunk and in the crooks of branches. Rock Orchids (Dendrobium sp) love growing on branches and make happy housemates.
Other flowering climbers for sub tropic gardens include the white fragrant Madagascar Jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda), Brazilian jasmine (Mandevilla hybrids ‘Alice du Pont’, ‘White Fantasy’ and ‘Beauty Queen’), Rangoon Creeper (Quisqualis indica), Orange Trumpet Vine (Pyrostegia venusta) and the Wonga Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana).
Temperate climate companions
The challenge with the temperate climate is to select cold hardy plants that look tropical. These plants should be able to survive cold winters and not die down.
Striped foliaged plants create startling displays. The hardy flax from New Zealand suits a tropical look in temperate climates. Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’ is one of the best in golden yellow stripes that lightens up the garden. Canna lily provides broad shaped colourful leaves and hot coloured flowers. In hot climates it needs shade. In cool climates it needs sun. Essential for good growth and showy foliage is water – they must have enough! Some varieties have spectacular striped foliage: ‘Tropicana’ has burgundy, bronze, gold and green stripes while ‘Tropicana Gold’ has green and gold stripes. Canna x ‘Australia’ has deep burgundy black leaves. In cool zones, canna lily, like frangipani will need to be moved indoors over winter. In warm climates canna can be divided and hacked back to ground level in winter for an explosion of growth in spring.
Canna lily fits the bill. Photo - suradech sribuanoy/Shutterstock.com
Colourful groundcovers for dappled shade include bromeliads (Vriesia, Guzmania, Alcantarea imperialis 'Rubra'), while other foliage contrasts for the shady areas include Plectranthus argentatus, Carex buchanii and Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus 'Ogon').
Groundcovers for sunny spots include succulents with bold outlines and distinct shape. Some are dramatic and fearsome like the prickly Agaves while others, such as Echeveria sp., are friendlier. The new leaves of smooth Agave attenuata swirl gracefully as they unfurl themselves from the main growing sheath. The thorny leafed agaves have exciting patterns. As each new leaf unravels from its tightly clasped growing sheath, it leaves sculptured lines and intriguing patterns imprinted onto the new leaves like a watermark. Jade (Crassula argentia 'Variegata') is a common but reliable plant paired with frangipani.
Hibiscus is not to be snubbed, as they are one of the best flowers to create a tropical look in cold climates. September Lily (Clivea miniata) and Pagoda plant (Justicia aurea) are good in shaded areas while Gardenia (Gardenia sp.) has perfumed white flowers in the sun. Brazilian Walking Iris (Neomarica caerulea) and Norfolk Island Iris (Dietes robinsoniana) have similar strap leaves with unusual iris- shaped flowers. Flowering climbers such as Dwarf Bougainvillea and Chinese star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) are cold hardy.
Frangipanis love the coast but few others share the same resilience. Coastal plants native to your immediate locality will provide much inspiration and local nurseries are your best bet in finding these types of plants. African daisies (Gazania and Arctotis sp.), felt plant (Kalanchoe beharensis), the iridescent blue of the blue chalksticks (Senecio serpens) and Cushion bush (Leucophyta brownii) are excellent low plantings that thrive in these conditions. Taller shrubs include the never fail Rock Rose (Cistus x purpureus) which is ideal for this type of situation but also performs well under drought conditions and lavender (Lavandula x allardii) also thrives under coastal conditions.
African daisies work well with frangis in coastal conditions. Photo - ManuelfromMadrid/Shutterstock.com