Sprawling plant provides fruit and juice while attracting wildlife
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 31, 2010)
May has been a warm, wet month — perfect weather for one of Florida's most versatile plants, Passiflora incarnate.
Commonly called passionflower, maypop or apricot vine, this Florida native is completely edible – leaves, roots, flowers and egg-shaped fruit. The plant has a number of medicinal properties and herbal qualities, including calming nerves and acting as a natural sedative. The Food and Drug Administration includes passionflower on its GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list, and in Germany it has been officially approved to combat "nervous unrest" since 1985.
But that's not why I like the passionflower. I like this plant because it's pretty and attracts wildlife.
Passionflowers provide nectar to bees, hummingbirds, hummingbird moths and quite a few butterflies. It also acts as a larva host to the Gulf fritillary, variegated fritillary and zebra longwing butterflies. The most common passionflower — and the one growing wild where I live — is light purple with a yellow-green center.
This low-growing, sprawling plant has an extensive root system. In sandy, dry woods and fields, passionflowers tend to behave themselves. Occasionally they will stretch up a tree trunk or climb through shrubby branches, but most of the time the flowering vine creeps along the forest floor, dotting the pine needle and leaf litter with its fancy, round blossoms. On our property, hundreds of individual plants emerged in May when rain came down and temperatures rose.
Wild passionflowers become more wayward when introduced to the home landscape. When I lived in Kissimmee, I intentionally transplanted a single wild passionflower vine into an irrigated garden bed filled with enriched soil. My hope was that the pretty, purple-flowered vine would climb a trellis set against the house to provide a colorful display.
Reminder to self: Be careful what you wish for. The vine climbed the trellis, then proceeded to twirl its tenacious tendrils around the exterior siding as it crept up the wall, over windows and onto the roof.
I no longer attempt to domesticate Passiflora incarnate, enjoying it instead in its natural state as an undergrowth plant in forests and open fields. The face of a passionflower bloom is intricate and lovely. The round, flat flower resembles an eye. Blossoms are about 3 inches wide, with a thin, wavy layer of fringe atop broader, two-tone purple petals. In the center, showy yellow stamens surround a pale green pistil. Although blooms last only a day, new flowers appear daily.
Because individual blossoms have such a short life, these pretty wildflowers aren't the best choice for bouquets. They are, however, functional plants worthy of admiration. Native Americans made a poultice of passionflower roots to relieve inflammations, earaches, boils and cuts, while in Central America, the Incas brewed leaves for tonic and applied crushed leaves to bruises.
In the United States today, the most commonly used part of the passionflower plant is not its leaves or roots but its fruit. The size and shape of a duck egg, the green fruit turns yellow as it matures. Break open a ripe passion fruit and inside are gooey sacks of sweet-tartness. Much to Ralph's amazement and, dare I say, disgust (he doesn't like the taste at all), I like to suck the syrup out of passionfruit while we're taking walks around the lake.
These days, passion fruit juice is all the rage. Welch's is one of many companies that have tapped into consumer demand for this rich, flavorful source of potassium and vitamins A and C. Those same nutrients also make it an important component in cosmetic products such as shampoo, lotions and creams.
I'm always glad when wildflowers receive the attention they deserve. The passionflower may be a lowly plant, but this determined vine has crept its way out of the fields and woods and into our everyday lives.