Passionate about Passion Flowers

A Passion for Passion Flowers

Passiflora incarnata blooming in Austin, Texas Passiflora incarnata blooming in Austin, Texas

Anyone who has gazed at the intricate details of a passion flower in full bloom will understand how it is possible to be immediately captivated by this plants spell.  It is hard to believe that a flower so beautiful is genuine and not a vision or creation of human imagination.  Once viewed, there is no denying the fact that passion flowers evoke a strong emotional response when they are in bloom.  Building on the alluring sight of the flower is the fragrance of some passion flowers, so strong that it leaves a sweet tropical scent memory.   Gardeners fortunate to taste the distinctive, nectar of the edible fruit will have an even clearer understanding of the reason that passion flowers are one of the crown jewels of the plant world.  The best news is that they are easy to grow in most indoor gardening conditions. 

Passion flowers invoke more than an emotional response, they also have reputed medical properties. Their most prevalent use is as an extraction of glycoside, which is made from the dried leaves and its used as a sedative or tranquilizer.  In Brazil, trained herbalists prescribe an herbal remedy using the rind of the fruit as a sedative for the relief of headaches.  In Mexico it was and still is taken for insomnia, epilepsy and hysteria.  Some people use the juice as a digestive stimulant.  Herbal uses date back to the North American natives (Algonquin and Cherokee) who used parts of the native passion flower to create an curative tranquilizer.

Passion Flowers blooming at Chanticleer - The Pleasure Garden near Philadelphia Passion Flowers blooming at Chanticleer – The Pleasure Garden near Philadelphia

Recently it was discovered that passion flowers have uses that are culinary in addition to their long-known medicinal properties.  The oil from the seeds is now used domestically and industrially as an edible oil similar to sunflower oil. Some types of passion flowers have even been used as a beverage that is a substitute for tea.  Caution should be taken at all times when preparing herbal remedies.  Consult an experienced herbalist instead of attempting any self-medication.  The results could be very tragic as the raw root of passion flowers has narcotic effects and is poisonous.

Historically, the first passion flowers, called Maracuja in their native South American habitat, were introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 18th century.  The story begins in 1609, when a Mexican scholar showed Jacomo Bosio, a fellow scholar, drawings of a wonderful flower so marvellous that he did not believe them.  After receiving more drawings and assurances from Mexican Jesuits, Jacomo Bosio was finally satisfied that this marvellous flower did exist. He now felt that it was his duty to present the ‘Flos Passionis’ (flowers of passion) to the world.  The unusual flower structure was believed by Spanish Missionaries and early discoverers to be emblematic of the crucifixion of Christ.  They saw the 5 stamens to represent the wounds, 3 styles for the 3 nails and white and purple-blue for purity and heaven.  Finally the leaf symbolized the spear.

Of botanical interest is the fact that it was not until the early nineteenth century that many species were seriously collected and cultivated in European Botanical Gardens and then found their way to wealthy Victorian gardener’s glasshouses.

In 1820, the first passion flower was hybridized to give it properties that made it more appropriate for the garden.  Now there are hundreds of hybrids in a wide range of colours (purples, blues, white, cream and red). Today 95% of passion flowers are from the tropical rainforest regions of South America, the remaining 5% are from Asia, Australia and North America, with still more new species discoveries being made.

Violet Passion Flower at Chanticleer - A Pleasure Garden in Wayne, PA Violet Passion Flower at Chanticleer – A Pleasure Garden in Wayne, PA

Botanically, passion flower is known as Passiflora which is from the latin word “passio”  for passion and “flos” for flower.  To date there are about 500 different species of passion flowers which have been discovered in the wild.  They are mainly vines with tendrils to help them climb (cling).  North America has several native Passiflora vines. One is Passiflora incarnata, which is called apricot vine or maypops in some areas.  It is native from Texas to Illinois and can be grown in a protected location outside in Boston or New York.  It may even survive outside in Niagara by dying to the ground each winter and re-growing. The blooms are an intricate bluish-white with purple accents.  It has a small, edible fruit that produce a loud pop when accidentally trodden upon. Although it is less flavourful than some of the other South American types, the 5-7 centimetre fruit has plenty of seeds to start and share new plants with gardening friends.

Of economic significance, some passion flower’s are grown for their fruit, the largest is the tropical, Giant Granadilla (Passiflora quadrangularis) which has melon size fruit up to 30 cm in diameter.  This is the source of passion fruit flavouring processed in Central America. Some vines produce twenty-five of these mammoth fruit in a season.  The passion fruit flavouring is often added to drinks and ices.

In their native habitat, passion flowers are almost exclusive hosts to over 70 species of tropical butterflies in the Heliconid family.  These colourful butterflies rely heavily on this plant both for the leaves as a larvae food source and for the nectar and pollen as an adult butterfly food source. The Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory uses passion flowers as one of their larval host food for their in-house butterfly breeding program.

It is this close relationship between butterflies and passion flowers that helps some species avoid insect attack.  Look closely at many passion flower leaves and there will be inflated glands that mimic caterpillar eggs.  Passing butterflies avoid laying eggs on leaves that already are claimed by another butterfly.  This mimicry tactic saves the passion flower from being eaten. 

Bees enjoying Passion Flowers too Bees enjoying Passion Flowers too

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