John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society
by Helen Hamilton
Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)
Unbelievably, this tropical-looking flower is native to Virginia, and is common here in the southern Coastal Plain. Intricate, 3-inch lavender flowers have a fringe of wavy, hair-like segments, banded with purple and on top the 5 sepals and petals. Three styles extend from the ovary in the center of the flower, a unique arrangement allowing only the largest bees to accomplish pollination. Leaves are toothed along the edges and 3-lobed.
Purple Passionflower is a host plant for the Variegated Fritillary butterfly. Emerging early in the spring, female butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of this plant, and may produce as many as 3 broods through the year. Caterpillars can be seen feeding on the leaves throughout the summer and into the fall. Yellow Passionflower (P. lutea), also native to Virginia, is not quite as showy, with smaller yellow flowers and a small black berry as fruit.
Growing in fields, pine woods and fencerows widely across Virginia, the plant occurs in southeastern U.S. and Bermuda and west to Oklahoma and Texas. Any soil will do, rich is preferred. Full sun produces more flowers, and the drainage can be moist to dry. The plant has deep roots and will colonize to form groundcover. In a controlled garden or flower bed, this viny plant should be located in a container, sunk into the ground.
Dedicated to share knowledge and record newly discovered species and created hybrids, Passiflora Society International has a website, annual meetings, and biannual newsletters. There are over 500 species of the genus Passiflora, mostly vines, shrubs and trees of tropical America. Native to South America and sold often in local nurseries, the leaves of non-native Blue Passionflower (P. caerulea) have 5 lobes, not 3. Many other cultivars and tropical species are available online and in the nursery trade.
The Passionflowers were discovered by a Roman Catholic friar in Mexico in the early 1600’s. Symbolism to the Christian passion abounds. The combined sepals and petals could represent 10 apostles (omitting Peter who denied, and Judas who betrayed), the five anthers = the five wounds, the column of the ovary = the cross, the stamens = the hammers, the three stigmas = the three nails.
However, American Indians already used the plant in folk medicine and as an aphrodisiac, attaching a different meaning to the plant’s name. Chemists have found drugs in Passionflower used to combat insomnia and anxiety. A writer in southern Appalachia advises: “After you have lived with someone for many years the little things they do start to bother you. So you take some passionflower leaves and make you a tea. Pretty soon you start to relax and the little things don’t bother you so much and you get along fine.” Passionflower tea and liquid extracts are widely available.
Another name, Maypop, comes from the hollow yellow fruits that pop when crushed.
The fruit is greenish-yellow, edible and makes a very good jelly. In 1612 Captain John
Smith reported that in Virginia the Indians planted a wild fruit like a lemon, which begins to ripen in September. It is the official state wildflower of Tennessee.
For more information about native plants visit www.vnps.org.
By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photo: Passionflower Vine (Passiflora incarnata) taken by Helen Hamilton