The taste of the tropics

The taste of the tropics is a common theme and slogan that has been sold to the masses for generations but what really is the flavor of the tropics? Various tropical fruits and foods like different entrée staples, chips, candies and even petroleum based products have all claimed to be the flavor of the tropics, but I feel there is only one embodiment of the tropics that fits the plethora of niches. The champion of this category has to be passionfruit. Within this large family of fruiting plants we have to recognize the diversity of this beautiful family of plants, Passifloraceae. Not only does this family consist of many vines but also there are a few fruiting herbs, shrubs, trees and even a few annuals.

The common passionfruit has been used for decades and has a place in many cultures around the world. It seems to have a direct impact on both societal and religious beliefs especially those of Christian descent. During the middle ages as the new world was being discovered these plants were adored and admired by many Europeans within the American continent. The genus Passiflora was thought to embody the life, death, suffering and passion of Christ. Many passion fruit enthusiasts may not realize their localized fruit gets the name passion from the passion of Christ. There are more than seven specific portions of the flower that have direct symbolic resonance with the Passion of the Christ.

Although the North American Continent does not have so many native passifloras, we do have one that has taken the show in terms of both beauty, medical importance and its range stretches as far as the northern Mississippi River Valley. Passiflora incarnata is one of the most important passiflora genera within North America. It is used as both a natural sleep aid for its medicinal qualities, eaten fresh for humans and wildlife alike and is a host plant for the Heliconius butterflies. Apart from this perennial passiflora within the North American continent there are five other native vines that exist in central to south Florida. Many of these vines are quite rare and inhabit extreme south Florida within hammocks but Florida holds a unique spot and place for these predominantly tropical plants.

Aside from the more rare passiflora in Florida the most commonly cultivated passionfruit, Passiflora edulis appears to naturalize along fresh water ways and within forests in central to south Florida. I have documented such phenomena within many areas in Hillsborough, Manatee, Citrus, Hardee, Desoto, and Sarasota counties. They are predominantly the more hardy yellow types but nonetheless these vines are quite hardy, cold tolerant and the fruit is enjoyable. Whether or not they have escaped form cultivation, been dispersed by animals or randomly plated, they appear to be naturalizing here.

If you look a bit closer you’ll see yellow oblong egg shaped and larger yellow ornaments hanging from the trees. Literally. Many large passionfruit are hanging in the cypress, oaks, camphor’s, sabal palmettos, and pretty much anything else this vine can reach. In disturbed wild areas, preserves or next to densely packed HOA-style houses usually host a variety of issues with invasive or exotic new species. One area in particular has always given me interest. It’s a pretty neat piece of property where we have observed multiple generations of a sweet yellow passion fruit that I believe is here to stay.

References:

Boning, Charles, R. Florida’s Best Fruiting Plants. Pineapple Press, Inc. Sarasota Florida, 2006

Ulmer, Tortsen & MacDougal, John M. Passiflora Passionflowers of the World. Timber Press, Inc. Portland Oregon, 2004

Passiflora incarnata

Passiflora edulis