Green tendrils curl gently around the trellis near my favorite coffee shop, and the vine is reemerging from a brief winter sleep. Although lilies have come to traditionally symbolize Easter, there’s another flower with a long history and exceptional medicinal herbal properties that deserves recognition given this particular time of year.
Purple passionflower, or Passiflora incarnata, is native to the United States, but only constitutes one among hundreds of species of this alluring tropical vine in the Americas. Several are native to the United States, though not the South American blue passionflower depicted in our illustration, which is one of the most widely cultivated of the flowers.
The origin of the flower’s name comes from the Spanish conquistadors, who ‘discovered’ this striking plant in their explorations of Peru. The structure of the flower lends itself to depictions of the events surrounding the crucifixion of Christ, also called the Passion: the ten outer petals symbolize the apostles present at the crucifixion, the five anthers the wounds of Christ, and the three stigma the nails used on the cross. We are left to wrestle with the tension of a poignant historic metaphor of the Christian church and the symbolism of a plant co-opted by Spanish missionaries during an abhorrent colonization of indigenous Peruvians.
Like so many worthwhile contemplations, the significance of this flower lies in paradox.
Cherokee used passionflower extensively, as the vine grew prolifically in disturbed soil throughout their ancestral land in what is now Tennessee. When I journeyed to Eastern Tennessee, I saw what the Cherokee call uwaga, growing in the disturbed soils of roadsides, along abandoned fences and even trailing along rough ground on the edge of fields. Uwaga, meaning ‘apricot vine,’ is named for the yellow fruits, about the color of an apricot.
Over this past summer, I was able to try some passionfruits growing in La Conchita on the Central Coast of California. When you shake them, you can hear the seeds rattle against the walls of the fruit, which is hollow and filled with a sort of jelly-like pulp that is both sweet and slightly floral when ripe. The fruits can be eaten raw, made into syrups or jam. I can attest that the jam is delectable, if not a little hard to find. The dark green leaves and stem, as well as the orchidaceous flowers, can be dried and used as a mild sedative when taken as a tea, tincture or blended with other herbs to smoke.
Passionflowers can grow over 30 feet high, and their tenacity requires careful planning and ample space on the part of gardeners. This exotic plant, thriving even in poor soil and in drought once established, demonstrates a botanical resilience to encourage us with the proliferation of spring green in anticipation of fringed summer flowers: Passion, especially compassion, in this season of thawing and renewal, is something to strive for with tenacity and in abundance—no matter what difficulty lies ahead.
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Bonnie Rubrecht is a writer and illustrator living on the Central Coast of California. She is also Content Editor for Tea Leaves Blog.