Thursday, August 26, 2010

LOOK FOR: Passionflower (And Maypops)

A few weeks I told you there's hibiscus native to the DC area, even though most people think of it as a tropical flower. But in the "isn't this tropical?" category, our native passionflower takes the cake.

bumblebee on passionflower
Passionflower at Lake Artemesia by The Natural Capital
If anything in our area looks like it should live in the jungle (or perhaps Pandora), this is it. Each flower has a base of 10 whitish petals (5 are actually sepals) with a layer of frilly purple tendrils on top of them, crowned by an other-worldly set of stamens and pistils. And it's a vine -- aren't there lots of vines in the jungle? -- with large, deeply-lobed leaves.

The tropical look of this flower may lead you to think of steamy nights of passion, but the 17th century missionaries who named it claimed to have religion in mind. (Was this devotion, sublimation, or a sly double entendre? We'll probably never know.) But with 10 petals for the apostles, a crown of tendrils, the five stamens representing five wounds, and three pistils for nails (or the Trinity), you've got the Passion incarnate (Passiflora incarnata): the crucifixion of Christ.

Purple passionflower, Passiflora incarnata
Photo credit: Janet Powell
Unaware of their religious symbolism, those amazing flowers are just trying to reproduce. It's fun to watch bumblebees nectaring; their backs get covered in pollen from stamens poised at just the right height.

And in late summer, the vines will produce a luscious, this-should-be-tropical fruit. Each oval fruit has a green husk about 2 1/2 inches long. Inside are black seeds and juicy, gelatinous white flesh that's sweet, tart, and refreshing. These fruits are passionfruits, but they also go by another name in the south: Maypop. Presumably, they ripen earlier there.

maypop, passionfruit, fruit of passiflora incarnata
Photo credit: freethehops
In the wild: For several years there was a passionflower vine along the Capital Crescent Trail, by the bridge over the Clara Barton Parkway, but we haven't been by there to check on it in a while. There's a big mass of vines at Lake Artemesia. We'd love to hear about more!

In your yard: Passionflower prefers full sun and average moisture. But before growing passionflower you should be aware that it sends out runners that pop up far from where you originally planted it. Without attention it could easily overtake an area; in the wild it forms large, tangly masses. It might be worth trying to grow it in a pot, but I'm not sure how well it would tolerate that.