The first time I ever met the passionflower plant, I was on an island in the Galapagos following a group of brightly colored birds through the forest. We came out of the trees to the rim of a large sinkhole, and there in the open sunshine, our guide plucked a small yellowish-green fruit from a vine. I wish I had taken a photograph so that I could show others that moment of revelation. Our guide split the oblong, palm-sized fruit in half and inside was a thick mucous in which two rows of dark seeds were nestled. If it doesn’t sound appetizing, you aren’t alone. I had already volunteered, and no one in my party stepped up to fight me for the honor.
I dipped my finger into the fruit’s gooey center and experimentally placed it on my tongue. Suddenly, the light through the tree line seemed more intense, music went off in my head and a party set up shop in my mouth. My reaction sent everyone into the surrounding bushes to find their own passionflower fruit.
I have searched for that flavor experience ever since—passionflower-flavored products in the grocery store cannot match it. I’m not even sure that I can duplicate it by growing my own, but I am willing to try. The native passionflowers in Ohio are Passiflora lutea and Passiflora incarnata, the latter of which is the variety most often used in herbal supplements. The vines grow in the southern part of our state along the Ohio river and prefer the recently disturbed soils of fields and ditches. Although it’s typically thought of as a native plant it grows from Illinois to the East Coast, southward to Texas and Florida. In temperate climates, the plant dies back to its roots and sends up new green again the following year.
All passionflowers, aka maypops, boast not just the delicious fruit but an otherwordly bloom. In some parts of the country, it’s difficult to get a fruit to fully ripen, as the days aren’t long enough. I have seen the fruits form, but they didn’t become the magical delight that I had in the Galapagos. Perhaps it’s possible if you live in a more southern climate or have a greenhouse. However, if you don’t grow passionflower for the fruit, the plant still offers much for our eyes and our body. The flower is the stuff of legend. It is believed that the cross in the middle of the bloom represents the Passion of Christ, each part of the flower taking on a different part of the symbolism from spears to hammers.
In the herbal world, the leaves of the passionflower are used with great effect for the nervous system. Leaves are harvested in the fall and are commonly used in a tea or tincture as a general sedative. It is a very useful supplement for insomnia and anxiety, and renowned herbalist Margi Flint suggests it for anyone with a thyroid imbalance.
I am working on a passionflower trellis just off my favorite outdoor sitting area. The flowers are stunning and I relish the memories while I wait for my first fruit.