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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vines of Passion

                     Corona de Christo, Passiflora foetida

A widespread favorite of flower and butterfly gardeners, passion vines (Passiflora sp.) are gaining momentum for use in our suburban landscapes.  There are several native species that not only serve as larval food plants for several species of butterflies, but also brighten our gardens with beautifully complex blooms through much of the growing season. Well over 500 species of passiflora grow worldwide, with only 9 species native to the US, 6 of those growing in Texas, and 5 of those native or naturalized in Central Texas.

The Bracted Passionflower (Passiflora affinis) is a 3 to 6 foot vine with three-lobed leaves that grows in riparian to dry limestone areas of the Edwards Plateau.  Its greenish-yellow blooms are about an inch across, and appear from June through August.  Yellow Passionvine (Passiflora lutea) is a longer but quite similar looking delicate vine, with much more shallowly lobed leaves, and almost identical flowers May through September, that give way to purple or black berries in the fall. The hardest-to-find small passiflora vine is the Bird-wing or Slender-lobe Passionflower (Passiflora tenuiloba).  Growing on open limestone areas with dry, caliche soils, often over boulders or tree stumps, this vine has very elongated and somewhat variegated leaves that look like a bird spreading its wings.  Its small blooms are green and appear from April to October.

                                      Yellow Passionvine, Passiflora lutea

The most robust passifloras in our area are the Corona de Christo or Fetid Passionflower (Passiflora foetida) and the Purple Passionflower or Maypop (Passiflora incarnata).  The first is a fairly aggressive climbing vine with large, three-lobed leaves longer than they are wide, and velvety to the touch.  The flowers, which are white to pale lavender and 1-2 inches wide,  open in early morning and close within a few hours.  They are surrounded by thread-like bracts that persist after the flower fades, and surround the bright red fruits like a ‘crown of thorns’.  

                     Maypop, Passiflora incarnata

Maypop, which is often found in local nurseries, has naturalized in our area from south and east Texas, and is a fast-growing vine up to 25 feet long with showy, 3-inch wide deep lavender flowers from April through September.  This vine does well in full sun or part shade, with plenty of room to climb on an arbor or along a fence or handrail.  The common name ‘Maypop’ comes from the hollow yellow fruits that pop loudly when crushed.

The naming of the passiflora genus of plants comes from the description of their intricate flower parts in the early 17th century by Spanish priests.  Known by the Spanish as ‘La Flor de las Cincos Llagas’ or ‘The Flower with Five Wounds’, the passion flower refers to Christ’s suffering and its parts represent various elements of the crucifixion.  The five petals and five sepals are the ten disciples less Judas and Peter, the corona filaments are the crown of thorns, the five stamen with anthers are the five sacred wounds, and the three stigma are the nails by which Christ was bound to the cross.  While this symbolism is not universal, it is still an important reminder today in Christian societies throughout the world.

                     Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae

                     Zebra Heliconian, Heliconius charithonia

                     Julia Heliconian, Dryas iulia

While many different hybrids and cultivars are sold in local nurseries, these are mainly of subtropical origin.  The extra effort it takes to find the native species will reward you with several spectacular butterflies visiting your yard to lay their eggs on these vines.  Among those include the Gulf and Variegated Fritillaries, Zebra Heliconian, and Julia Heliconian.  What a wonderful reason to plant these vines of passion!