Today's plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Passiflora incarnata, the Maypop Passionflower. Probably the most exotic-looking thing that grows in Georgia, it’s a tasty edible, a super cool-looking landscaping plant, and the genesis of generations of childhood maypop fights.
The genus Passiflora is a huge one, encompassing over 550 species spread across tropical and subtropical regions of the world, and containing arguably some of the most beautiful plants in the world. The Southern Appalachians are about as far into temperate zones as most of these species venture – they are much more common and diverse in Mexico and Central America, the Brazilian Amazon, the rainforests of Southeast Asia, and northern Australia. Most species in the genus are either herbaceous or woody vines, but there are a few shrubs and small trees. Tropical passionflower vines can climb as high as 200,’ have spectacular saucer-sized flowers up to 6” across, and produce loads of sweet, juicy fruit that is a staple in many cultures and is even farmed commercially in some regions. Compared to them, our species is a runt. But by temperate ecosystem standards, it’s still pretty cool.
Common throughout the southeastern U.S., the Maypop is easily recognized by its large, showy blooms. They have five bluish-white petals, a distinctive white-and-purple corona, and a complex structure of rays and stamens. There’s nothing else around that looks remotely like them, so toxic mimics are a non-issue with this plant. Passionflower is a perennial, herbaceous, trailing or climbing vine that can grow up to 30' long. Being herbaceous, it dies back every fall and grows back from the rootstock in spring. It has 2”-5” 3-lobed leaves shaped like a turkey foot. It loves open, sunny areas, and can be found in places such as unkempt pastures, homestead sites, and abandoned fields. It has a high degree of drought tolerance and can handle poor soils well, so it’s often found in waste areas like abandoned construction sites. I’ve even seen them growing out of cracks in old house foundations or abandoned parking lots. But the easiest place to find them is definitely fencerows. Being a vine, they love to climb, and a colony of plants will often run the length of a pasture fence.
Every part of the plant is edible, but the fruit is really what you're after. They are the size of a hen's egg, changing from green to yellow to orange over the course of the summer, and may make a loud pop when you accidentally step on them in a field, hence the name Maypop. Before all children everywhere became locked on iPad screens, kids in the country used to have fights with green maypops. They’re a uniform shape and easy to throw accurately, and they raise a good welt if you throw them hard. They make an awesome hand grenade if you’re nine years old and have an active imagination. (I may or may not be speaking from experience.) The fruits are slow to grow, and will usually show up a few weeks to a few months after the plant flowers. They are an excellent, high-energy, sugary food source for making it through a wilderness survival situation, or a delicious snack at home. Jellies, jams, and ice cream are all fine uses of them. They are high in vitamin C and fiber. Their only disadvantage is that since they grow so close to the ground, are easy to pick, nutritious, and delicious, you’re not the only one who’s interested in them. Omnivores like raccoons, possums, hogs, and bears are smitten with them, but deer and even turkeys love them as well. Hell, I’ve even known coyotes to eat them. (They’re much more omnivorous than most people think.)
Passionflower is also a useful and potent medicinal plant. A tea made from the leaves is known for its anxiolytic and sedative processes, that is, it is a gentle, calming mood-booster that can help offset the effects of anxiety and depression. People with hypertension take note: passionflower has been used for centuries for treating high blood pressure. It can also be used as a safe, non-habit-forming sleep aid with none of the weird side effects of commercial sleeping pills, like sleepwalking for miles through the woods at night and having no memory of it. However, check with your doctor before self-medicating: Although generally safe, Passionflower tea has been known to magnify the effects of certain MAO inhibitors, sedatives, and anticoagulants. For this reason, it’s also not advised for pregnant or nursing women. Passionflower’s effectiveness isn’t just folklore or tradition, either (although that’s no reason we should discount it): Passionflower (we’re talking about multiple species here, not just P. incarnata.), is still listed in the national pharmacopeias of France, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, and Egypt as a legitimate treatment for the ailments listed above. It is prescribed by mainstream doctors and used effectively by patients. Plant medicine is real, y’all. Interestingly, however, it has been banned in the United States by the FDA as a prescription drug since 1978. We’re not going to get too deep into politics or conspiracies here, but you can take that nugget of information as you may.
Passionflower has a long and storied history in the folklores of the native cultures which grew up alongside it. In southern Europe, especially Spain, it became known as a symbol of the Crucifixion, which is actually what gave rise to its name (for the Passion of the Christ). Some species of passionflower have twelve petals (the apostles), three stamens (three days in the grave), straight, pointed coronal rays (the crown of thorns), and have a reddish-purple color (Christ’s blood shed), so it became a natural teaching tool for the medieval church to illustrate the Crucifixion to a mostly illiterate population. In North America, passionflower had a divine association, but in an entirely different way. In Cherokee plant mythology, the passionflower was sort of a gentle, feminine figure in the plant pantheon, like a soothing plant mother – probably due to her anxiolytic and sedative qualities. She was known as Ocoee. If you’ve ever paddled the Ocoee River in Tennessee, that’s exactly how it got its name, and from there, how it became the Tennessee state wildflower. Regardless of your tradition, passionflower certainly is a gift. It’s beautiful, tasty, and healing – there’s not much more you can ask for in a plant.
Have you ever eaten wild American passionfruit? Or had maypop fights as a kid? Tell us in the comments!