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April 2009 cover image dorrado fish in the gulf

Flora Fact: Easter Bloomer

From purple blooms to tasty fruit, the passionflower lives up to its name.
By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Traditionally, Christians give white lilies as an expression of love and faith during the Easter season. Blooms of another plant — the passionflower — have also long been associated with the sacred day.

Widely distributed across the state, seven native species of passionflower vines grow wild in fields, along fences, streams and rivers, and at the edges of woods. Many native gardeners plant passionflowers to cover arbors and attract butterflies. But it’s the woody vine’s exotic, purplish bloom that gets the most attention.

As early as 1569, Spanish physician Nicolás Monardes wrote that the flower’s parts represented the “passion” of Christ on the cross. In later years, European priests and scholars proclaimed similar beliefs: Ten petals represent the disciples (minus Peter and Judas), five stamens depict Christ’s wounds, and three knobbed stigmas, his nails on the cross. A circle of fringy filaments recall the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head. In 1735, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, the “father of taxonomy,” named the genus Passiflora because people adhered so deeply to the plant’s religious symbolism.

On his historic, 1,000-mile walk to the gulf in 1867, naturalist John Muir observed passionflowers, also called apricot vine. “It has the most delicious fruit I have ever eaten,” he wrote in his memoirs. When chewed, the pulp found within the orange-yellow berry may pop; hence, the plant’s other common name, may-pop. Factoid: Passionfruit juice flavors some tropical punch drinks.

Passionflower leaves serve a purpose, too. Dried and brewed, passionflower tea is said to calm anxiety, relieve headaches and induce sleep. As a larval host plant, passionflower vines attract gulf and variegated fritillaries and other species of brush-footed butterflies.

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