Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
My first encounter with a passion flower plant was back in high school when I succumbed to a display at my local garden center. The display promised beautiful passion flower plants easily grown from seed, and prominently featured was a gorgeous picture of a passion flower. I remember the seeds were packaged in yellow plastic eggs, and the package showed a cartoon of a very happy gardener and a beautiful flowering vine. I forked over my hard-earned babysitting money and hoped they were right.
I planted my seeds and waited. The seedlings that emerged grew with reckless abandon and filled the small trellis I had built. But no flowers. The summer days wore on, and each day I inspected my plant, but no sign of flowers.
As fall grew near, my mom warned me that there really was no room indoors for this new addition to my plant collection. I was sure that just one glorious passion flower would change her mind, and she would make room for my plant inside. I gave the passion flower vine an extra jolt of fertilizer to kick start some flowers, but no luck. I managed to squeeze my plant in with the rest of the indoor plants, but eventually my passion flower dreams dried up and so did my passion flower vine.
In recent years my interest in passion flowers has been reignited by the incredible variety offered by companies specializing in tropical houseplants. One of my favorite catalogs offers twenty-nine different cultivars and species of passion flower alone! Probably soon at least one will find its way to my house.
Passion flower is a member of the genus Passiflora, which contains about 500 species of flowering plants. Nine are found in the U.S. One of the more common U.S. species is Passiflora incarnata, commonly called Maypop, water lemon, wild apricot, or the Native American name "ocoee".
The common name passion flower has its origin in Spanish missionaries bringing Christianity to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. They used the unique structure of the passion flower to illustrate elements of Christ's passion.
Each flower is composed of ten petals, which they used to represent Christ's ten apostles minus Peter and Judas. Above the petals are 72 filaments radiating outward, which to the missionaries recalled the crown of thorns Christ wore during His journey to the cross. Above the filaments are three stigma and five anthers, representing the nails and wounds, respectively, of Christ during the passion.
Other common names related to this Christian symbolism are Christ's Thorn, and Mother-of-God's Star.
In most species of passion flower, the elaborate flowers last only one day. In Victorian times the passion flower became very popular, and hybridizing the many species became quite common. Many hybrids of different passion flower species have been created, in the quest for an even more beautiful flower or tasty fruit.
Many species of Passiflora produce an edible fruit. The two most common species grown for their fruit bear yellow or purple fruit. Both fruits have a unique guava-like flavor that many people find appealing. This sweet-tart flavored juice is often found blended with citrus juices available commercially.
To produce fruit, the passion flowers must be pollinated. Their unique structure and heavy, sticky pollen makes wind pollination impossible. Most depend on another creature, such as insects or even hummingbirds to pollinate them. Bees are often the insect that is most successful at pollinating passion flowers. In the U.S., the bee of choice in many cases is the carpenter bee. This bee makes his home by burrowing into wood, so some passion flower growers mount wooden beams near their passion flower plantings to attract the carpenter bees and hedge their bets on a good passion fruit crop.
In hindsight, I see that I probably didn't give my passion flower vine I grew back in high school enough time to flower. It can take up to three years for a vine to flower from seed. Maybe it's time for me to give passion flower another chance. After all, I'm definitely older, and (in theory at least) wiser than when I tried to grow passion flower the first time. I guess it's worth a shot.