Linwood Watson, MD
Fueling Your Passion for Botany and Food: The Passionflower and Maypop
The passionflower vine (Passiflora incarnata) is native to the southeastern and central US. It is a sun loving vine that can grow up to 30 feet long, usually in old fields, ditches and pastures. This sprawling vine loves an old fence to help support its trailing habit. The vine spawns a wonderfully intricate and tropical smelling passionflower, which to be frank looks like Dr. Seuss went on a LSD trip in a botany class. The native vine is deciduous, so mark the sites you see it so you will recall where to see the flowers in late spring and summer and then pick fruit in late summer/early fall
Not to be confusing, but the formal cultivated passionfruit is Passiflora edulis. This fruit is dull purple when ripe. However the native passionfruit (or maypop) is yellow when ripe and a bit wrinkled. An orange hue may signal overripe incarnata passionfruit. Passiflora caerulea is another southeastern vine that produces maypops, but it is not as “tropical” tasting as the incarnata species. So, if you are at a nursery and looking for a maypop vine to supply fruit on a backyard trellis, go for the incarnata species.
Many rural people recall the childhood game of jumping on a maypop fruit, which would “pop” and then seeds would explode out. While messy, and perhaps rude, at least this game helps to disperse the seeds. While growing and ripening, the fruit looks like an oblong green lemon. As mentioned, it will then start to turn yellow when ripe and ruddy orange when overripe. While the skin and seeds are bitter, opening the fruit by cutting in half and spooning out the seedy pulp is a sweet tropical smorgasbord. You can spit the seeds out as you enjoy the out of this world pulp. Most foraging manuals aptly just say the maypop is a “unique and hard to describe tropical taste”, and that vague summary is proper.
Bottom line-some things you just have to experience firsthand. In turn, that temptation should be motivation to ask your elders about this amazing plant.
This article would be disrespectful if the stunningly detailed flower is not mentioned. Even if you are not into “plant terms” and botany, I highly suggest the website https://www.backyardnature.net/fl_passn.htm. It skillfully matches the passionflower parts to how they serve to propagate the plant by beguiling bees and butterflies-an almost infinite number of butterflies. Even more amazing is how, like a hand and glove, the downward facing anthers seem to almost massage bees’ hairy backs, to deposit pollen onto them as they eat nectar and in turn carry pollen off to another plant. When you watch this late spring and summer dance, the bee will circle round and round the center of the plant, and you can see flicks of pollen billowing out and covering the insect’s back. Watching this spectacle as you almost get drunk on the heavy mango-ish smell wafting from the flowers is surreal and inspiring. No engineer will ever match the design efficiency of the passionflower enticing and then using insects for cross pollination. Indeed, it all is a silent symphony to the Creator.
While this native vine is strong, it too is becoming less common and even more so, humans are running into it less in their daily activities as the omnipotent mantra of modern industrial agriculture and “yield per acre” serve to eliminate the old time hedgerows, overgrown drainage ditches, and pastures. Farmers now routinely plow right next, and sometimes even into, roads and access paths to get more bang for the buck. While one should not be faulted for making a legal living at a noble profession, this maniacal “clean monoculture obsession” runs counter to Nature and sustainability. Short term profits will become long term failures via less biodiversity, worsening erosion, silted waterways, and ever more reliance on banks and debt to pay for products increasingly needed from multinational companies that profit from this increased reliance on pesticides and herbicides because Nature’s free defenses are tattered and frayed. The invertebrate conservation group, The Xerces Society, has shown that on many small and medium sized farms, preserving some biodiversity in strips in between farm crops can greatly reduce the need for farm debt inflating pesticides and herbicides. As such, the ultimate financial bottom line can benefit, not be worsened, by a few maypops near the field like the “old days”.
On the urban flip side, the encroachment of suburbia on rural areas also behooves these communities to plant parks and natural areas with beautiful native plants like the maypop, pawpaw, and the like. How many “golden mops” does a neighborhood need? Plant some variety. Also suburbia needs to respect “blue zone” plant areas that protect streams, creeks, and other waterways.
On a last horticulture note, while the maypop vine will gleefully cover even the largest trellis, be aware that it will spread underground and send up new shoots. Put it in an area you can easily mow around, as opposed to say, next to your blackberries or raspberries, lest the berries are “run over” and invaded. Then once the maypop vine is planted, place a comfortable lawn chair next to the vine and enjoy an adult beverage as you have a tropical scented evening with passionflowers…and later maypop pulp. Your taste buds will thank you. Your nostrils will thank you. A plethora of butterflies will thank you. And, the Creator will send thank yous…in ways you cannot imagine.
1. Bir, Sara. The Fruit Forager’s Companion- Ferments, Desserts, Main Dishes, and More from Your Neighborhood and Beyond. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018. If you are an urban or suburban forager, this book will scratch your itch. It is resplendent with Sara’s foodie knowledge and many nature walks and forays.
2. Bennett, Chris. Southeast Foraging. Timber Press, 2015. Chris Bennett started eating wild foods with his parents and never looked back. He keeps a steady blend of botanical “when to pick” tips with culinary tips.
3. www.xerces.org. Website for The Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation group that strives to give you- yes you- the tools to improve the world via better invertebrate habitat. They are more than “bugs”, and the Xerces Society tells you how to help.
https://www.backyardnature.net/fl_passn.htm. Again, you will think you have a passionflower PhD when you gleam this well illustrated website.