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Plant City Observer Wednesday, Jun. 15, 2016 2 years ago

The flower that looks like it's from another planet

The passion vine attracts butterflies.

By Devon Higginbotham
Suncoast Native Plant Society

The first time I saw a passion flower, with its bizarre, lavender zigzaggy petals and yellow-star stamens, my immediate thought was it must be from another planet. It looks like no other flower shape — daisy, tulip or rose. 

Not only is it spectacular to behold but it’s huge, measuring about 4 inches across, and it smells like a sorority house on formal night. 

I had to have one!

Gulf fritillary larvae

Sometimes called the maypop or May apple, this perennial vine is native to Florida and the southeastern United States. It grows well in zones seven to 10, climbing on fences trellises or as a ground cover in sunny locations. It spreads underground, sending out shoots some distance from the parent plant. It is attractive to zebra longwing and gulf fritillary larvae, which keep it in check. Thus, supplying your garden with a steady stream of butterflies.

Just when you think you’ve found the perfect garden plant, one of your flowers will go to seed, yielding a 2- to 3-inch passion fruit, which taste much like a crunchy kiwi when ripe.

For those of you living in dry areas, coastal beaches or dune communities, the passion vine will prosper along with your sea oats, saw palmettos and seaside goldenrod. Mine sprawls across a picket fence, gets watered when it rains and is not particularly fond of being overwatered.

The passion vines have special glands that produce nectar at the base of the leaves which attract ants. The ants roam all over the plants and carry away butterfly eggs or young caterpillars they find. But with a few gulf fritillaries flitting about laying eggs, the butterflies keep up a steady supply of larvae, and some manage to elude the ants to grow to maturity.  

The gulf fritillary’s tiny eggs are yellow, initially, turning brownish just before hatching.  Females lay them one at a time on the tendrils and young leaves of the vine, usually in sunny locations. The caterpillars live exposed on the plant, and small larvae sometimes rest at the tips of tendrils to avoid predator ants. 

Once the caterpillars get large enough to avoid the ants, they will turn orange with black spines and will eat leaves, tendrils and flower buds before entering the pupa stage.  

Although the gulf fritillary is in Florida year-round, look for them in abundance in late summer and fall when countless numbers migrate southward into Florida from throughout the U.S.

The zebra longwing, the official state butterfly of Florida, has young larvae that resemble the gulf fritillary. Older larvae are white with rows of black spines. The pupa resembles a dead leaf, so is very easily overlooked. 

Passion vine

Unlike the gulf fritillary, the zebra longwing is particularly long lived, frequently lasting up to six months. Theories for their longevity is their ability to consume pollen and sip nectar.

The passion vine’s smaller cousin, the corky-stemmed passion vine, is also a host plant for the gulf fritillary and zebra longwing, but the leaves are much smaller and the flowers inconspicuous.

There is much speculation as to why Carl Linnaeus, the renowned Swedish botanist, named it Passiflora incarnata some 250 years ago. Incarnata means flesh colored. There is nothing flesh colored about the passion vine. One theory is the significance of the flower pattern to God. In 1610, Jacoma Bosio, an Italian monastic scholar, heard reports of a wonderful flower in Mexico. The design of was said to have been created by God as a sign the native people of Mexico should convert to Christianity.

The theory was the three stigmas represent the three nails used on the cross, the five anthers count the wounds in Jesus, the corona of the flower recalls the crown of thorns, the ten petals equal the disciples (minus Paul and Judas) and the whip-like tendrils represent the whips used on Jesus, thus, the “Passion of Christ.”

Whatever your theory on Linnaeus’ mindset so long ago, the passion vine is a plant any Florida gardener would be passionate about.

If you would like to learn more about the passion vine or other Florida native plants, visit the Suncoast Native Plant Society, the Hillsborough chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. It meets every third Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Seffner Hillsborough Cooperative Extension Service office, 5339 County Road 579, Seffner. Or visit


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