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The passion flower has a story to tell

Published in the McAllen Monitor, March 4, 2023

Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist

Corona de cristo, Passiflora foetida, is a passion flower native to south Texas. The thin leaves and slender vine stems appear delicate, but don’t be fooled, they’re hardy. It’s not uncommon to find new plants coming up along farm fields and scrub brush in early spring.

The fresh leaves are light green, trefoil shaped and tissue paper thin, becoming sturdier as the plant matures. New plants about five inches tall can be gently dug up and replanted where they are safe from mowers and farm equipment. A good place is along a chain link fence or other support. Many naturalists and native plant experts believe that rescuing native plants with the intent to promote species continuation is a plus for the habitat.

Corona de Cristo, Passiflora foetida (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

What is breathtaking about this particular passion vine is its exquisitely unique flower. Viewed laterally, it is an architectural delight. Scientifically, those features show several layers: The white petals, the sepals, are undergirded by sepal awn – a needle-like appendage under the sepal tips. The lavender fringe-like petals are the corona filaments; rising from the center is an adrogynophore, a short, dark red column that supports five symmetrical filaments with hinged, pollen-laden anthers. A bulbous ovary sits atop the filaments base surrounded by nectaries; a three-pronged style and stigmas complete the top.

For all its amazing design, the flower is busy for only a short time. Open before sunup, nocturnal ptiloglossa genus bees and eyed dysodia moths are still busy gathering pollen and nectar along with early morning Western honey bees. The flowers begin closing before noon, leaving a one-inch ball wrapped in fringed calyxes. Seeds develop within this structure in a gelatinous pulp. Birds eat the fruit and help distribute seeds.

Ptiloglossa genus bees on Passiflora foetida (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Eyed Dysodia Moth on Passion flower. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Passion flower is more than a pretty face, its value doesn’t end when the flowers close. It is a larval food plant for Gulf and Mexican fritillary butterfly caterpillars. My first experience with this vine was when I came nose to nose with an orange dragon-like caterpillar with black spikes, munching on a leaf of passion vine that had travelled through the branches of a young tree. When the caterpillars enter their final stage, they hook onto the vine or fence and form a chrysalis that looks like a dead leaf. I unwittingly kept my eye on a dried leaf for a couple of days before I spied an actual chrysalis, which I checked each morning until the butterfly emerged.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar on Passion Flower leaf (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Gulf Fritillary butterfly on Crucita (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The passion flower has its own ancient story: Roman Catholic priests in the late 1500’s, believed that the petals, rays and sepals symbolized the crucifixion of Christ, historically known as the Passion of the Christ, according to a link at The flower's five petals and five petallike sepals were thought to represent the 10 apostles who remained faithful to Jesus throughout the Passion. The circle of hairlike rays above the petals suggested the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the day of His death, the three stigmas symbolize the three nails, and five anthers represent the five wounds.

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