Passiflora; The Passion Flowers of the Desert
by Cheryl Miller
Few flowers are as striking and beloved as those that exist within the Passifloraceae or Passion-Flower
Family. They grow all over the world, except for Antarctica, parts of Europe and Africa. This prolific
family has 18 genera and over 547 species; of which, 6 grow right here in our splendid Baja Peninsula.
The Passion Flower was given its Christian popular name by the Early Spanish missionaries to the New World. “Passion” meaning the “Passion of Christ “ during his life and death, not in the context of sexual or love-type of passion. They saw in the corona of the flower’s radial filaments the representation of the crown of thorns from the crucifixion; the long- stalked ovary which is reminiscent of a chalice to be the Holy Grail; the three stigmas’ representing the 3 nails and the 5 wounds during the Crucifixion represented by the 5 stamen; the 10 petals as representing the 10 faithful apostles, (excluding denying St. Peter and betraying Judas). Passion flowers are self climbing vines using tendrils to secure itself. These were symbolic to the missionaries as the whips used in the flagellation of Christ; while their colors of white, blue and purple represented purity, heaven and royalty. During the 15th and 16th century, drawings and descriptions of these "marvellous" flowers were taken back to Europe, and as early as 1610 Jacomo Boscio presented the “Flos Passionis” to the world as "the most wondrous example of the Croce trionfante discovered in forest or field." (Taken from “Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics”, by Richard Folkard, Jr., London, 1884.) In Spain, the flower is known as Espina de Cristo *Christ’s Thorns).
In non-Christian cultures, the flower has been fairly regularly named after the image of a clock. For example, in Israel, the flower is called “clock-flower” and in Japan it is called “clock-plant”.
The 6 species and subspecies of the Baja Peninsula are Passiflora palmeri (and variation palmeri var. palmeri, Passiflora arida, Pasisflora foetida (and variation longipenculata) and Passiflora fruticosa. All have fruit, all have recorded uses as a food source from the fruit, some are favored more than others in taste and nutrition, all located in differing areas and microclimates of the Baja. For example, the Palmeri (Granadilla, sandía de la passion, bolsita de víbora) species are very rare and have been found in Baja California Norte around the 26th parallel. Foetidas (Stinking Passion Fruit, Baja Passion Vine, love in the mist, wild maracuja) are more common at the 23rd parallel, Mulege, Los Cabos and La Paz. Fruticosas (corona de Cristo) can be found from the tip of the peninsula to 32nd parallel in the north. Aridas (Granadilla, rosal de la passion, flor de la passion, bolsita de la víbora) are common in all parts of the Sonoran desert here in the Baja, mainland Mexico and Arizona.
Unlike other Family consistent traits in the Plant World, the leaf structures of the Passiflora are varied and cannot be used to identify the plant grouping. There is a huge variance in leaves in this family. Some have 3 lobes, others are 1 or 2 lobed; some are enormous and others miniature. This is true of the Baja California species as well.
The Palmeri species of the Baja presents a white colored 2 to 3 inch flower with a minimalistic purplish crown and palmate three lobed leaf with fine hairs that grows to a maximum size of 3 inches in breadth. Its fruit is small, about 2 inches long, that contains several gel coated brown seeds. The gel coating is said to be quite sweet and tasty. It grows, as with all Passion fruit plants, as a vine, that is self climbing with clinging tendrils, but tends to be low growing plant from a caudex root formation.
The Arida species can grow up to 40 ft high or wide. It has violet / lavender / white flowers with distinctly separated three lobe leaves with veins and slight fuzzy hairs. Flower is about an inch wide with a blue filament and staple which ultimately results in a 1 inch long green fruit. Both Foetida and Arida species have non-glandular bracts and a woolly pubescence or covering of short hairs. (Pubescence is a desert plant strategy as a protective adaptation in regions with a long dry season. Leaves will contain thousands of tiny pores called stomata through which it transpires. These openings are also vulnerable portals for moisture loss. The tiny trichome hairs help to baffle the air or wind at the leaf surface slowing down moisture loss which can have a significant effect on reducing moisture loss in dry environments. Pubescence also helps to shade the leaf surface. )
The Foetida pubescence exudes a sticky fluid. Small insects get stuck in the fluid and are decomposed thereby protecting the plant from damaging insect invasions, killing and breaking down the insect with phosphatises acids. This process in the Foetida varieties is called a protocarnivorous, as the plant does not actually digest the insects for nutrition, but it is used as a defence mechanism. Foetida means “Stinky” and the Passiflora variety’s leaves and stems exude a foul smell when crushed or broken, another desert defence against foraging by animals. The leaves of the Foetida are a closed palm shape with 3 to 5 fingers. The flowers are very small, mainly white with purple or rose colored crowns resulting in a yellow fruit when ripe, about an inch and a quarter long.
Lastly, the Fruticosa varieties here in the Baja are probably the least documented of the Baja varieties, despite having the largest area of growth in the peninsula. An interesting fact, but one that confirms the wonderland of botany we live in here in Baja; one of the last botanical areas of great discovery still yielding additional species to the annals of knowledge yearly. Its flowers are said to be blue, miniature, and entirely enclosed in large resinous / glandular bracts (a modified leaf or scale located below the true flower.)
Although only 7 of the 547 varieties are commercially grown for the world market, all passion fruits are edible. Part of many other parts of Passion fruit plants are toxic though, so don’t brew teas or use other plant parts without advice of a botanist. Locally, in all regions of the world, people exploit them for their local market or traditional uses. Most often the fruit is eaten directly from the rind or used for juice or in ice cream or other desserts. None of our Baja Peninsula passion fruits are commercially used. But they have been propagated as a landscape plants in some areas. All of the Baja species are considered an invasive weed, reproducing through seeds and tubers. Despite this however, it has been recommended as a ground cover by the Arizona Water Users Association for its xeriscape - low water usage.
Due to the size and structure of the most passion flowers, normal insects or bees cannot pollinate the flowers. It just simply requires a larger visitor. Hummingbirds, larger bees, moths, bats and wasps optimally are required to do the pollination, although some species are self pollinating. In some countries, where they are commercially grown, farmers install large wooden beams close to their crops to encourage carpenter bees to visit and pollinate their passion fruit crops. Most species of Passiflora flowers last only a single day, opening in the morning and dying at sunset. However, in Baja, Passiflora Fruticosa has developed an interesting evolution that is unique, opening in the night and early morning as opposed to full sunlight, protecting it from the intense heat of the desert, as well as encouraging the pollinating visits from nocturnal creatures such as bats.
Each Passion Flower species has a thread of common chemicals to its own Family, in differing combinations and strengths specific to each species. As a family, Passifloraceae, is known as an aphrodisiac and a remedy for insomnia. Some species are being used for their anti-depressant properties, others for anxiety disorders. But, our Baja California varieties have had little research. The roots of the Foetida has been documented as an antispasmodic; and the Palmeri and Foetida species have been shown to be high in antimicrobial and antioxidant activities. Only about 1% of the world’s passion flowers have been analyzed in some detail, the Baja Varieties, not being among that 1%. Baja, a botanical frontier!