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GARDENING : Passionflower Has Divine Roots, Delicious Fruit


Did you ever wonder what passion is inspired by the "passion" in passionflowers and passion fruit?

The name came about because 17th-Century Christian missionaries saw in these flowers a teaching tool for spreading the Gospel of the Passion of Christ.

The 10 petals were taken to represent the 10 Apostles present at the Crucifixion. The threadlike rays of the corona were taken for symbols of the crown of thorns.

The five stamens and three styles referred, respectively, to the five wounds of Christ and the three nails used in the Crucifixion. Even the rest of the plant figures in, with the three-lobed leaves representing the Trinity and the tendrils representing the scourges.

What about horticultural passions? Most passionflowers are tropical species, but one species is hardy enough to grow outdoors over much of the country.

This plant is commonly called maypop ( Passiflora incarnata ). The flowers, indistinguishable to non-botanists from the tropical species, are 1 1/2 to two inches across, with lavender petals and a purple crown that has a darker halo toward its base. The open blossoms exude a lemony musk aroma.

Maypop fruits can be as delicious as tropical passion fruit. (Even if you have never tasted passion fruit, you may be familiar with its flavor, the dominant one in Hawaiian Punch.) Maypop fruits are yellow to yellow-green, oval, and 1 1/2 to two inches across.

Like a tropical passion fruit, the inside of a maypop fruit is filled with air and with seeds surrounded by a tasty gelatinous pulp. To quote a 19th-Century writer, maypop has "the bigness of a green apple, and hath manie azurine or blow kernels, like as a pomegranat, a good summer cooling fruit."

If you give the fruit a squeeze, it pops like a balloon, hence the name, maypop.

Maypop grows as a perennial vine, climbing by means of tendrils, then dying back down to the ground each winter. Growth begins late each season, with the shoots not poking up through the ground until June in northern areas.

When the shoots finally do show, stand back! They grow as much as 20 feet in a season. And the plant is every bit as vigorous below ground as it is above ground.

Plants growing along a sidewalk have been known to push under it and appear on the other side. Remove any unwanted suckers by merely jerking them out of the ground when they are three inches high.

Training maypops on some sort of a support brings the flowers to eye level. The support might be a fence, or even some early blooming shrub, such as lilac. The maypops, being "late risers" in the spring, do not interfere with the spring show of the lilac, and later in the season the lilac is covered again with blossoms.

Surround the shrub and the maypop with lawn, and your lawn mower can keep the aggressive maypop roots in bounds.

Although maypops are prolific bloomers, they do not always fruit well. (Two different plants and pollinating insects are needed, for starters.) But use of maypops need not end with the fruit.

Native Americans used maypop vines to treat insomnia, and maypop is the ingredient of tinctoriae passiflorae, used for similar purposes.

And, of course, the plant is worth growing just for its passion-inspiring blossoms, which also are pretty indoors, floated in bowls of water.

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