Mostly in the Hedges: Passion Flowers
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
I remember the first Passion Flower I ever saw. Of course I remember it. This is a flower that makes an impression. Doc and I were hiking at Pea Ridge National Military Park, and I wasn't sure if I'd spotted a really cool flower, or had found evidence that aliens walked among us disguised as local flora.
It looks like a tropical transplant that made a break for it, but Passiflora incarnata is native to the Eastern half of the US, and it grows as far north as Illinois. It is a relative of the more tropical versions, and its fruit is nearly identical to the Passion Fruit you may have had in desserts. People here get pretty excited about how delicious the fruit is, but I've found the flavor to be lackluster compared to the commercial version, and that it varies from plant to plant. This is typical of wild fruits, and certainly shouldn't dampen your enthusiasm for trying some if you come across it.
Like Passion Fruits you might see at the store, the fruit of the Passion Flower isn't ripe until it looks like a fruit you might toss: dark purple and quite withered. The pulp inside is a little slimy, orange to yellow in color, and is full of edible dark, large-ish seeds. The flavor is tart, somewhat floral, and has that certain tropical je ne sais quoi. It's hard to find ripe ones in the wild, as they tend to fall off the plant as soon as they are at the "ready to eat" stage, where they provide a feast for various bugs. When I need passion fruit pulp for a recipe, I look for frozen puree from Goya in the freezer section. They've strained the seeds out for you, and it's always very reasonably priced.
OK, so it's neat-looking, and produces delicious fruit, but we're not done! The history of this plant is also worth noting. Not only is it sacred to the Cherokee in Tennessee, who call it Ocoee, early missionaries attributed aspects of the story of Jesus to the flower's various, intricate parts. The apostles, minus Peter and Judas, are represented, as are many other details of the last days of Jesus. While some medicinal properties are attributed to Passion Flowers, there is no substantial evidence that they are effective for alleviating or curing any ailments. You might see this plant referred to as a Maypop because the plants suddenly "pop up" in May, and also because the fruit sometimes pops when squeezed.
It is fairly easy to grow from seed, and produces climbing vines. I'm thinking of adding it to my garden next year to see what the local humming birds and bumble bees think of it.