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Garden Visit

Purple With Passion

Jorge Ochoa's romance with the otherworldly passion flower has blossomed into obsession.

July 19, 2001|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

On a recent summer evening, there were only two empty folding chairs left at a packed meeting of the Culver City Garden Club. The crowd was there to hear member Jorge Ochoa talk about passion flowers, those amazingly complicated, almost-hypnotic blooms that fascinate gardeners and non-gardeners alike. "No one knows the Passiflora like Jorge," said one member.

Compared with ordinary flowers like daisies, passion flowers look as if they're from another planet, or an alternate dimension. Viewed from above, their intricate and symmetrical construction resembles a fanciful Indian mandala, and they seem to radiate some kind of cosmic energy. The name comes from the sacred symbolism seen in the flower's parts, which reminded the 17th century Spanish discoverers of the Passion of Christ. This is a very metaphysical flower.

At the meeting, Ochoa displayed some of the more unusual kinds of vines on two long tables pushed together. He also brought along some of the many products made from the fruit or flowers. "I wanted people to know theyweren't just pretty flowers," said this major fan of the genus.

He had boxes of herbal remedies--dried flowers and leaves--that are used by some as mild sedatives. A few even believe the plant to be aphrodisiacal, perhaps misunderstanding what the "passion" in passion flower means. The plant's flowers are also used in a number of herbal hair products, including shampoo and hair spray. In the tropics, the fruit, or granadilla , is found in many foods.

Scattered around the meeting room were cut flowers, which Ochoa brought from his home in South-Central Los Angeles. He invited everyone to take a flower or two home, apologizing that most passion flowers stay open for only a day and would be wilted by morning.

At his family's home on Compton Avenue, passion flower vines grow on every fence and wall and completely roof over the frontyard. The stylish, dark-haired 27-year-old was born in Jalisco, Mexico, but has lived in this neighborhood since he was 9. He discovered passion flowers at a sister-in-law's home in Culver City, but he found his second variety in his own neighborhood and a third a few blocks away.

He went to the Arboretum of Los Angeles County in Arcadia to see more but found that his collection of three was larger than its collection of one. The arboretum library did find him an authoritative book. "Passion Flowers" by John Vanderplank (MIT Press, 2000) is the current edition.

That was eight years ago, and though he had no prior knowledge of plants, this intense interest in passion flowers led him to study horticulture for two years at Long Beach City College and two more years at Cal Poly Pomona, where he earned his bachelor's degree in horticulture in 2000. He is currently working as a park manager intern for the Los Angeles parks department.

In college, when he had to choose a plant for a particular project, he always picked a passiflora. If he had a plant anatomy class, Ochoa would slice up a passiflora. For a class on tissue culture, he'd clone a passiflora. "I majored in passion vines," he said with a big grin, "with a minor in plant pathology." He couldn't help adding that he has "a passion for passion flowers."

He's still compiling his "bible" on passifloras. One binder is already 4 inches thick with research papers and notes. He's searched every site on the Web, read every book and aims to know all he can about the genus. And to grow as many as he can lay his hands on.

Ochoa says that Passiflora are native mostly to the cooler, wetter parts of Central and South America--which is why they tend to do better in the less-hot areas of Southern California, like the L.A. Basin. There are isolated species scattered around the world--in Africa, Australia, on our own East Coast and even one in nearby Baja. There are something like 500 kinds, and Ochoa has managed to collect about 60, "with 20 in the mail."

Right after learning about passion, he joined the Passiflora Society International (http:// wwwpassiflora. http:// org ). Only a few kinds are available at nurseries, so he grows most from seeds that he gets from the society's seed bank. He orders about 15 new kinds each time he gets the quarterly newsletter.

Ochoa is interested only in the "species" passifloras, which are the wild, unhybridized kinds. "I really prefer their natural beauty," he says. He does grow one hybrid--the dramatic, frilly cultivar named 'Incense,' whose flowers are among the most beautiful. This perennial can take cold weather and has 2-inch, egg-shaped edible fruit with pulp that is considered tasty.

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