The passion of the Passiflora

How hard can it be?

The screwy weather in Northern California continues.  We’ll have chilly, windy temperatures for a week, and then soar into the 80’s for a day or two, then drop back into the 60’s again.  Night temperatures remain cold — mid 40’s — and it’s making the peppers and the two new Passiflora Incarnatas (passionvines) rather unhappy.  I’ve begun taking the Passifloras inside the house at night in hopes that they won’t up and die on me, as every other Passiflora has to date. There is something about Passifloras I’m just not getting.  They’re practically an invasive weed in every other part of the country except my backyard, where they dramatically clutch their little throats and shrivel up.  (You can see the Passifloras in Picture #1, right in front of the snazzy new potting bench and tool rack that Incredibly Useful Husband put together for me without effort despite the world’s worst instructions.  The nifty device the vines are climbing is called a “Spiraclimb,” which is really just a big cheap spring and I wish to God I’d thought of it first.)  — Garden Update to friends, May 2011

I have a “thing” for the passionflower vine, and not least because it was reputed to be incredibly hard to kill.   (Don’t underestimate that.) But given that I am one very special snowflake when it comes to gardening, I was able to cripple or outright murder several victims before the stars came into alignment and a couple of them clung to life. This summer, things seem to have turned the corner.

A little backstory first.   Passifloraceae are perennial vines.  The genus contains a large number of variants and cultivars, the latter largely hybrid for the quality of their blooms — all of which are completely unique, absolutely spectacular, and perfectly ephemeral, as they last only a single day.   It’s a well-known plant in the southern part of the United States, to the point where the august Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs notes that it’s “a rather weedy specimen and is not of great interest to many gardeners.”  Herbalists are deeply interested in it, though.  A few specific varieties have been recognized as containing calmative and sedative properties in their leaves and flowers, very useful in a tea and tincture, as well as producing a delicious and unique fruit.  Two of those varieties are the edulis and the incarnata.

Below is Ed, our Passiflora edulis.  He began his career in the backyard in a large (and I thought quite attractive) pot, but soon expressed his deep unhappiness with the conditions by dropping leaves, refusing to grow, and doing everything but taking out a New York Times ad accusing me of negligence.

Ed (Passiflora edulis).

Concerned, I transplanted him into Actual Dirt with a trellis along a fenceline, which I thought might please his essential vininess. He proceeded to sulk for two years.  I gave him the “do what the hell you want” watering treatment I used on the alyssum.

This morning, though, I went outside to find three of these. I guess he’s forgiven me.

The Passiflora incarnata has a more dramatic story, which involves a moral choice that I think anyone would torture themselves over.  Below is a picture of an Incarnata flower — you can see the similarity between it and Ed, but the variations are distinctive.

Passiflora incarnata, a.k.a. “Maypop”

What I didn’t know when I started out with the passionvines is that there is a butterfly called the Gulf Fritillary that prefers P. incarnata plants, above everything else, to lay its eggs on.  The butterfly is very beautiful.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful and eating everything you care about.


Last summer, when I had two Incarnatas growing in the backyard, I started noticing a large number of these lovely creatures flitting and soaring around me as I puttered about.   It made me very happy and peaceful.

And then, in the fog of butterflies, I noticed this.

Cue the “run screaming to the Internet” behavior.  I soon discovered that what was almost certainly happening was that all those glorious butterflies were starting their careers on my Incarnatas.  So I went out to investigate.  The following picture is NSFPeopleWhoHateBugs.


I grew up in Michigan, the Land of Ugly Caterpillars, but this guy beat all.  I’d never seen anything like it. But after the panic attack I realized that those gorgeous butterflies beating their fragile stained-glass wings around my head every morning were relying on my precious Incarnatas as a food and shelter source for their young. As terrifyingly ugly as they were.

Cutting to the chase: I let them eat the vines. I’m not going to pretend to be noble here — it’s just that I don’t use pesticides, and I wasn’t even close to handpicking them off.  (Go ahead, you touch that.)  And I’ll admit that the grace and beauty of the butterflies made up for a lot of the frustration.

But there’s an upside to this. The vines did survive the Butterfly Onslaught long enough to produce some fruit before they were turned into dry little sticks by the munching horror stories.  All fruit came from the Incarnatas, as Ed was still sulking.  I hear that his fruit is larger and more purple, if, in fact, he ever decides to produce any.  I’m not betting on it, but anything can happen.

The butterfly survivors.


(The best indication I’ve found for ripeness for a passionfruit, incidentally, is going out every morning and picking them off the ground.  The vines drop them when they’re ready. You have to be fast to beat the squirrels.)



Ready to go.

Passionfruit, like the prickly pear, has one of those utterly unmistakeable flavors that is difficult to describe.  I gouged out the flesh and strained the seeds out, and then, without any ideas of what to do with it, froze the batch until lightning struck.

Enter: Hot Sauce. Habanero pepper, prickly pear, and passionfruit.

Sweet and hot.

The Incarnatas were eaten down to sticks last summer, but came back this year to my complete surprise.  One of them has exploded with flowers and I see no caterpillars as of yet.  Ed, unaffected by the Butterfly Onslaught, is on his own agenda. At this point, I’m going to wait and see what happens.