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What do you know about passion flowers?

We’ve probably all seen passion flowers. They have a curious structure of radiating, coloured filaments circling a central, exotic arena. The flowers on Passiflora have a 3-D design. Nature is a clever beast and this flower guides pollinators to the nectaries. Native to  tropical America, pollinators include bats, hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and moths. Here in the UK, these flowering beauties have to rely on insects, but they still provide an amazing spectacle.

Passiflora caerulea climbing plant Passiflora caerulea is the passion flower most widely seen here in the UK. It is relatively hardy and vigorous
Are the fruits edible?

One of the most frequent questions that people ask about Passiflora is whether or not the  fruits are edible. Because many of them look quite different to the ones we see in shops.  We are familiar with those purplish-coloured spheres on sale in supermarkets.  The fruits yield aromatic and unmistakably delicious pulp with a tropical, sweet flavour. But on most of the vines available as ornamental plants here, the fruits that form after the flowers are soft, yellow and squashy.

The answer is positive. But whilst they will do you no harm, the fruits aren’t tasty. The flavour bears no resemblance to what you might hope for. The main type you need for fruiting purposes is the purple passion fruit, Passiflora edulis. This is available in the UK, but not as readily as the varieties with showier flowers. It is hardy up to a point but will need a little winter protection.

passion fruit growing on a passiflora Passion fruit are great to eat!

There are other passion vines grown for their edible fruits. They include the giant: Passiflora  quadrangularis, which grows fruits sized rather like a football! This is eaten like a vegetable in the tropics, but not generally available in the UK.

Beautiful blooms
Passiflora 'Marijke' passionflower vine This amazing Passsiflora 'Marijke'. It has magenta and mauve flowers, mixed with pink and white

We adore this climbing vine mainly for its value as an ornamental species. There are now over 500 different varieties. Passiflora flowers tend to arouse passion, inspiring people to paint, to write poetry and to garden.

Passion flower on fence The foliage and spent flowers of Passiflora caerulea. They make a fresh, green covering over walls, fences and pergolas. Flowers appear almost every day during summer

The standard blue passionflower, P. caerulea, is a vigorous, likeable thug. It climbs and twirls using tendrils. The vine can reach heights of 20 metres or more and will tend to pop up all over the place with ease. We can forgive its exuberance because of those flowers. They last but a day but appear in abundance. All the plant requires is a sunny spot, lots of sunshine and a warm support.

Passiflora vitifolia passion flower Passiflora vitifolia has a distinctive red flower which is particularly eye-catching

There are now many hybrids, created for their larger flowers, colour tones and  different style of flowers. Some of them are barely recognisable from the parent and more varieties are being created all the time. Our infatuation shows no sign of waning. Passiflora hybrids are generally less vigorous and not as hardy as the main species. They are worth the extra care required because of the blooms.

Passiflora pink flower The hybrid Passiflora are still recognisable from the parent, but hugely different in terms of colour and style
Why the name?

Explorers during the 16th century discovered these perfumed, exotic flowers in the Americas. Many of these people were missionaries. They made an association between Christ’s crucifixion and the shape of the ‘flower of the five wounds’. In Christian terms, ‘the passion’ is the expression used to describe the final period of Jesus’ life, including his crucifixion. The five sepals and petals of the flowers represent the disciples without Peter and Judas. The flower colour, mostly purple, matched the liturgical tone of Lent.  A  central pillar in the flower was said to represent the column against which Jesus was flogged. The plant’s tendrils were likened to cords and whips. Also, the top three stigma were said to represent the three nails used to secure Jesus to the cross.

Pink passionflower Even this pink passionflower, Passiflora tulae, bears the hallmark of the Christian association.

There’s more symbolism too, if you’re not too alarmed by the drama. The circle of filaments at the centre of the flower could be the crown of thorns. On a rather more uplifting note, the rays within the flower are similar to a symbol used to depict divine glory.

passion flower on vine It's easy to understand why this flower was given its name
Medicinal use – and toxins too

It is said that we can gain medicinal benefits from parts of this plant.  For example, Passiflora incarnata has been used to help relieve anxiety and insomnia. People suffering from liver problems and even earaches are said to have found relief.

But the foliage hides a dark secret. The glossy leaves have a defence mechanism that helps to protect against bug feasting. When an insect nibbles at the leaves, they release  chemicals that combine to produce deadly cyanide. This kills the insect and the scent warns off other pests.

Passiflora flowers The flowers of Passiflora are highly unusual, especially this one with its curls!

The result of this defence mechanism is the protection of foliage – meaning that this plant is relatively easy to keep. What’s not to love about this climber?