A history of the plant name Plumeria, commonly known as Frangipani

To scientists, plants are known by their scientific name; to everyone else, they are usually known by a common name. Carl Linnaeus was the first naturalist to implement the binomial nomenclature system—the classification of plants by a Latin genus and species. Common names, however, are not necessarily unique to one species. So what’s the history of Plumeria and Frangipani, the iconic tropical garden genus? You might be surprised to learn that both have an interesting origin.

Charles Plumier

Charles Plumier

 Plumeria

Carl Linnaeus first described Plumeria in 1753. He named the genus Plumeria after Charles Plumier, the botanist of King Louis XIV of France. It’s not uncommon for botanists to name plant species after other people and it’s an incredible honor when one is named after you. Plumier (1646—1704) was a clergyman of the Franciscan Order of Minims, a very strict Roman Catholic order that lived in a perpetual state of Lent, with many dietary restrictions. Though he was a talented mathematician, he was inspired by one of his teachers to pursue botany, going on to become one of the most important botanical explorers of his time. He traveled to the West Indies (Lesser Antilles, Greater Antilles, and the Bahamas Archipelago) on three botanizing expeditions and has been called the “Father of West Indian Flora”. He traveled with another botanist, Joseph Surian (? –1691) who collected plant specimens while Plumier made drawings. Plumier drew all types of organisms and his drawings of plants number over 4,000. Of these, over 700 were new to science, and many of his new names honored famous botanists (i.e. Magnolia after Peter Magnol; Fuchsia after Leonart Fuchs).

Plumeria alba  as drawn by Charles Plumier Images from: Nova Planataram Americanarum Genera. 1703.

Plumeria alba as drawn by Charles Plumier
Images from: Nova Planataram Americanarum Genera. 1703.

Frangipani

Frangipani, the common name for Plumeria, has an unusual story that started in London. Though it is likely a myth, several books on perfume history have printed this account as actual fact convoluting the history of the name Frangipani.

The story of Frangipani originated in the late nineteenth century when London was the largest city in the world and the capital of the British Empire. The city had a great disparity between the rich and poor both economically and socially. Owners of Piesse and Lubin, a luxury perfumery in 1855, (George Wilhelm Septimus Piesse, an English perfumer and Wilhelm Lubin, a French perfumer) wanted to propel perfume into new bourgeoisie markets. They created a romantic fictional character, a hero, who they named Frangipani. Their story takes Mercutio Frangipani to the New World as a botanist on one of Columbus’ voyages (ca. 1493). Desperate to find land, he became a hero when he discovered the shoreline through his extraordinary sense of smell. This story was plausible to Western populations whose “noses faced the unrelenting siege of London’s sulfuric coal smoke and choleric filth, Paris’ pungent ancient sewage buried beneath the permeable walkways”.1 As they landed in the Bahamas, Mercutio was said to have discovered Plumeria alba, the smell of the many white flowers originally attracting them to shore. When he returned to Europe, he was said to have passed his discovery on to his grandson, who used the discovery to make a perfume.

 None of this was true, Piesse had, in fact, formulated a synthetic scent that he had named ‘Frangipanni’ in 1880, under the guise of the story of the Marquis de Frangipani. He had hopes of sensationalizing its prestige, driving profits. The common name, Frangipani, seems to have its first origins in Italy, a family bearing the name Frangipani traces back to an ancestor whose job was to refill the wafers, or holy bread in church. Frangipani literally means “broken bread” with frangi meaning to break and pan meaning bread.

Charles Plumier likely discovered the first Plumeria plant but it wasn’t officially described to science until Linnaeus in 1753.
Since then, it has been an icon in tropical gardens around the world.  

1 Kettler 2015. Making the Synthetic Epic. The Senses and Society 10(1): 5–25.
2 Piesse 1867. The Art of Perfumery and the Methods of Obtaining the Odors of Plants, 3rd edn. Philadelphia, PA: Lindsay & Blackiston.