Leaves Disappearing on St. John???


If you’ve been lucky enough to be on island over the past few weeks, chances are you’ve noticed an absence of leaves on certain small trees around the island. It’s also probably very likely that you’ve noticed a very attractive little caterpillar nearby. Well no need to worry, the leaves aren’t disappearing around the island. It’s simply frangipani season.

Each year the pseudosphinx tetrio, which is a fancy way of saying the frangipani caterpillar or frangipani hornworm, makes an appearance on St. John, eating up all of the frangipani leaves in its paths. The black caterpillars are very flashy looking with bright red heads and almost neon yellow stripes along their bodies. They can eat up to three leaves a day, which means you might have a gorgeous frangipani tree in the morning and simply a tree trunk and branches in the afternoon. But no need to worry, the caterpillars don’t kill the tree; they simply eat all of the leaves. 

The frangipani caterpillar
The frangipani caterpillar

A frangipani tree
A frangipani tree
Frangipani is also known as plumeria. There’s a great looking one out at Annaberg. We haven’t been out there in a bit, so I’m not sure if it’s in bloom or if the caterpillars have gotten to it yet. If any of you are out there, please let us know.

Here’s a bit more information on the frangipani tree and caterpillar courtesy of Gerald Singer’s See St. John:

The native or wild frangipani has a smooth bark and long slender leaves. It produces a pleasant aromatic flower that is always white.

Its imported relative, Plumeria rubra, may have pink or white flowers.

Both varieties have soft fat twigs that serve to hold water during dry periods.

Every year their leaves are eaten by a beautiful, large, black and yellow caterpillar with a red head.

They are called frangipani caterpillars, and after they eat up all the leaves they begin a metamorphosis and eventually become a big dark moth called the sphinx moth.

Pseudosphinx moth
Pseudosphinx moth
I don’t know about all of you, but I think the caterpillar is more visually pleasing than the moth. But alas, the circle of life. 🙂

7 thoughts on “Leaves Disappearing on St. John???”

  1. We were just talking about this! Our villa we are staying at this week has a tree that has lots of these little guys and the leaves are almost gone! Thanks for saving me the research time!

  2. Great article. A few years back, I noticed that one of the signature bushes at our villa Plumeria (those would be Plumerias, aka Frangipanis, of course) wasn’t just not flowering, but appeared eaten down to the trunk. There were also exactly these huge and vivid worms busy chomping down the remaining stalks, after they had already devoured every leaf. The scale isn’t obvious in the article, but these guys are BIG: 5/8″ in diameter, and 4-5″ long. Out of concern for our Plumerias, we quickly checked in with the Googles, and low and behold, the frangipani caterpillar was the culprit. I plucked about twenty of them off the bush, and dropped them in a bucket of water. The Plumeria fully recovered, and is flowering nicely now.

    All the best,


  3. I first saw these big beautiful caterpillars at the Annaberg ruins… I took photos & used them as screen savers for years! I wish I had a frangipani tree so I could have some caterpillars!
    I would NOT drown them

  4. I remember seeing the plumeria on bay street just as you pass Gallows before the road down to Frank Bay covered with them when I lived on Island in the 1990’s. I also remember the smell of jasmine at night near the top of the hill before walking down to Joe’s Apartments. Thanks for making me feel old! Oh, and the frangipani photo is actually an Adenium or desert rose and its sap is quite deadly.

  5. These are incredible caterpillars–no need to spray or harm them as it is just part of the cycle and the tree will come back robustly with it’s beautiful and fragrant display.

    I believe your picture with the pink flowers is not a frangipani, but a “desert rose” (one of my favorites). The flowers are a little different and do not have the scent of the frangipani.

    Nice article and photos nonetheless.

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