A Twist on Passion

Wending through shrubberies and edges in all areas of Los Angeles County, you’ll discover a somewhat unwelcome beauty, a blue passionflower (Passiflora caerulea) that has found its way into the landscape, probably escaping from cultivation. It’s easy to see why someone would have brought the South American native into their garden; it’s a vigorous plant that produces stunning flowers. It also has tasty fruit that birds harvest, distributing the seed throughout the ruderal landscape.

Those characteristics are shared by practically all of the nearly 600 Passiflora species, luxurious vines with stunning flowers and ornamental fruit that readily attract attention. When Europeans invaded the New World and encountered different passifloras, lacking general understanding of flower pollination (even of the sexual purpose of flowers), they imagined these vines to be divine messengers, beautiful reminders of the Passion of Christ. Three topping stigmatic lobes connote the nails that staked Christ on the cross. Five stamens recall the five flesh wounds, and their festive filamentous basal corona was a stand-in for the crown of thorns. The sepals and petals total ten, which number the same as Apostles remaining steadfast following Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial…

Botanically, their fascinating structure generates other observations – the unusual perched (stipitate) ovary which matures to an orange-colored pendent, inflated fruit, filled with somewhat tasty and curiously peripheral seed (parietal placentation); that massive corona, the gangly stigmatic lobes…. What is this all about?

Bumblebee on the filamentous corona

Fortunately, you can easily figure much of this out. Watching a population, you’ll often encounter bumble bees walking on the scaffolding the corona creates, probing for nectar deeper in the flower. You’ll see the bees are covered with pollen, swabbed on them by the downward-facing stamens. And checking at differing times of the day, it becomes obvious the three stigmatic lobes change position, erect and away from bees in the morning, hanging down among the stamens later in the day. (If you pick a flower in the afternoon and take it home, you’ll see that in the evening the lobes return to an erect position, ready for the morning. So there is wonderful mechanism you can decipher.)

Visit the wayward colony regularly and you might also discover lovely orange butterflies, actually Fritillaries (and in the tropics, the heliconids) hanging around. These lovelies are commonly associated with passifloras as food plants for their larvae.

But wait! There is more than religious symbolism and magnificent biology. Kids can have fun with Passifloras, making Passiflora Babies… Stripping off bracts, petals, sepals, two stamens, and one stigmatic lobe can provide a few amusing moments in generating vegetable puppets.

Some other Passiflora images….

White form of Passiflora caerulea
Passiflora edulis
Fruit, Passiflora edulis

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