Plant Profile: Passionvines

By Craig Huegel

Reprinted from The Understory, Aug.–Sep. 1997

Illustration © Cathy Vogelsong

Passion flowers belong to their own separate family, the Passifloraceae, and comprise a group of about 18 genera and about 350 species, mostly in warm and tropical regions. They are most abundant in tropical South America. We have four native species in Florida, one nonnative that occasionally becomes a pest, and many nonnatives, used in landscape settings, that sometimes escape.

Passion flowers get their name from early Spanish explorers who saw symbols of the crucifixion in the complex flowers. The religious zeal of these people is well-documented, but their vision in regards to these flowers is difficult to see. nevertheless, the Passifloraceae means "Flower of the Passion" or "Flower of the Cross."

As a family, passion flowers can be either vines or erect herbs. All species in Florida are vines, however. Most have five petals and five stamens (the structures that hold the pollen-producing anthers), with a complex fringe of "hairs" between the two. Fruits can be a many-seeded berry or a dry capsule. In Florida, all produce "berries" with a leathery skin enclosing a moist pulp that surrounds the seeds. Following is a brief description of the species commonly found in Florida.

Passiflora incarnata (Maypop). Maypop is by far the most attractive of Florida's native passion vines. Its large lavender flowers (2½ inches across) bloom in abundance through the spring and summer months. These are then followed by egg-shaped fruit that are extremely tasty. Just remember to not eat the skin. Eat only the soft pulp around the seeds. Maypop is common throughout Florida in sandhill and old field communities. It requires full sun and excellent drainage to prosper. In these conditions, it suckers freely and spreads. This trait allows it to stay one step ahead of the gulf fritillary butterfly whose caterpillars eat it voraciously. Maypop is a vigorous vine and needs room if used in the home landscape. If you can meet its space and growing requirements, this passionvine is your best choice for a butterfly garden. Plant it in a sunny spot at the edge of partial shade and zebra longwing butterflies will use those suckers that pop up in the shady areas. [illustration left]

Passiflora suberosa (Winged maypop). Winged maypop is perhaps the most common passion vine in Florida. It occurs in central and south Florida counties in a wide variety of settings, but usually in semi-shade. It's small (about ¼ inch across) greenish-yellow flowers are followed by ½-inch deep purple fruits that are eagerly eaten by birds. After the digestive process, the seeds are widely scattered in the droppings below common roosting sites. Winged maypop uses its tendrils to climb into trees and shrubs, but its growth is commonly hampered by butterfly caterpillars. Those plants that occur in shady areas are consumed by the larvae of zebra longwings and by julias too, in south Florida. Those in sunnier locales get eaten by gulf fritillaries. This plant frequently volunteers in the home landscape. If you plant it yourself, put it in partial shade and let it seek its own comfort zone. It prefers moister conditions than maypop, but is very drought tolerant. [Editor's note: this plant is also known as cory-stemmed passionvine.]

Illustration © Cathy VogelsongPassiflora lutea (Yellow maypop). Yellow maypop is found statwide, but is infrequent to rare throughout peninsular Florida. In some respects, this vine is similar in appearance to winged maypop, but the small flowers are yellowish-green and the stems do not have corky "wings." Unlike winged maypop, the leaves also are only shallowly lobed. Although this species would be used in the home landscape similarly to winged maypop, it is not commercially available at this time and it is too rare in our area to make an appearance via the bird route with any likelihood. [illustration right]

Passiflora multiflora (Many-flowered maypop). This is yet another native speces that shares many characteristics with the winged maypop. Like it, it occurs only in south and central Florida and its flowersr are small and greenish-white. Major differences are the lack of corky "wings" along the stems and an abundance of fuzzy "hairs" on the leaves. This passion vine is not common in our area, is not commerically available, and is not likely to appear in your yard by accident.

Passiflora foetida (Stinking maypop). This is a nonnative species that is a common escapee and, once established, is difficult to eradicate. Native to Texas, this is a beautiful species. Its negative name comes from the awful smell that arises when the leaves or stems are bruised. Stinking maypop has pale lavender flowers that are 1-1.5 inches across. These are followed by bright red fruit that are partially covered by a spiny group of green bracts. Although this is a showy species that has some potential for butterfly gardens, do not plant it purposefully and do not let it become established should it show up by accident.

Published on  06.01.2013