The miracle of the Passion Flower

By Laetitia Sands
Special to Dorchester Banner
I have a friend in Cambridge who had a magnificent passion flower vine that flourished for years. From its spot alongside her house, it grew and grew, twining around the ever taller trellises she put beside it, twirling along the porch and producing a profusion of amazingly beautiful flowers which, to my mind, resembled miniature painted carousels.
The vine thrived for years, giving that side of her garden an air of tropical opulence. But after last winter, it turned into a burned skeleton – yet another casualty of the unusually frigid weather.
Many gardeners in the County lost rosemary bushes, which are only half hardy, and fig trees, which hail from the Mediterranean, in that harsh winter. Now, my friend’s vine appeared to have succumbed to the cold.
Passion flower, botanically known as passiflora caerulea, originated in the tropics of South America. Roman Catholic Spaniards who colonized parts of the continent gave the plant its European name because the structure of its flowers reminded them of the Crucifixion.

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Some types of passion flower are frost hardy while others are frost tender, making them too fragile to survive the winter north of Washington, D.C.; but if the cold kills them above-ground, the plants often regenerate in the spring, sending up new stems from the root. In this case, however, the minus temperatures and multiple snow storms we had in late 2013 and early 2014 appeared to have done the plant in.
All through last spring and early summer, the brittle brown remains of my friend’s formerly splendid vine reminded her of the sad gardening loss. Finally, she whacked the stems off and started to think about what she might plant to replace it.
Then, in late July, a miracle occurred. A frail little sprout bearing the distinctive three-lobed leaves that used to adorn her vine crept out of the soil. When I stopped by, one hot, humid day, the puny stem already stood about six inches tall.
When I went to have a look last week, the sprout was no longer alone. At least a dozen young stems, each with a few leaves, were stretching up toward the bare trellises.
Many people, including me, thought the cold had killed their fig trees, too, when the trees failed to produce leaves at their usual time this past spring. Some gardeners chopped off branches that had turned black in the cold and looked dead. But many of those trees made a comeback, sending up new branches from the ground, or, in cases where the gardeners didn’t remove branches, new leaves from the blackened limbs.
I left my fig tree intact – more out of grief than hope it might still be alive. All those years of watching it grow from a sapling into a big, beautiful tree that provided ever more fruit and shade with each passing summer…. But very late in spring, buds began to appear on the blackened branches.
Now, in September, with the tree covered in leaves and still quite a bit of fruit from what turned out to be a bumper crop, I can see clearly the few branches that failed to survive. I’ll mark them with a ribbon, to be pruned off after the tree has gone dormant in late fall or early winter.
As we head into another, possibly unusually cold, winter, the moral of this passion story – as I see it – is that nature can be incredibly resilient. Sometimes we think we know it all because we’ve witnessed, over many years, things happening in the plant world at approximately the same time of year, every year. But plants can surprise you, make that amaze you.
Don’t be too quick to judge or to wield the knife, pruners and saw. Be patient, no matter who says what about your failure to cut or clip, no matter how unattractive bare branches may look when other plants all around are decking themselves out in flowers and leaves.
Give nature a chance – a good, long, generous chance – to recover from unexpected onslaughts of the climate. You may get a wonderful surprise, even in the middle of summer. And while waiting for a plant to recover, you can always deck out bare branches in fairy lights.
What You Need To Know When Planting A Passion Flower Vine
Passion flowers measure up to four inches wide and come in a range of colors – pink, ivory, red, fuschia – with a “crown,” often in white and purple. The blossom gives off a delicate fragrance, said to resemble the scent of a Hawthorne tree in bloom. In my book, any plant that smells nice should have an honored place in the garden. If only there were enough room for all the perfumed plants….
If you’re thinking of planting your own passion flower vine, pick a sunny, sheltered spot where it’s not likely to suffer from exposure to cold northeastern winds in winter. (The same advice goes for rosemary bushes and fig trees, if you lost these last winter and want to try your luck again.) Passiflora likes rich, well-drained soil.
Like all vines, a passion flower needs support in the form of a trellis, arch, arbor, old tree, fence, wires or a structure of some sort. To prevent it clambering along the ground and cottoning on to any old thing it finds, the gardener should start training it when the vine is young and continue throughout its (and the gardener’s) life. Check the soil around your passiflora and water the plant thoroughly if the ground feels dry.
A vine is a lovely thing to have, especially one with spectacular flowers which will not only bring compliments from your friends, but attract fascinating and beautiful creatures like butterflies and hummingbirds. Vines are also extremely useful. Strategically positioned, they can shade a hot porch, spiff up a boring wall or fence, prevent erosion on a steep bank and add color to the garden. And don’t be afraid to plant them alongside another plant, like a climbing rose. A friend of mine had climbing red roses and white-and-purple passion flowers growing together. In bloom, they were magnificent.
Even one passion flower in a small vase is a miracle to behold, with its ornate structure, brilliant colors and alabaster-like petals.
More than 400 species of the plant exist, most of them evergreen or semi-evergreen – another point in their favor. Many of them produce edible fruit, as well. (Which types are best for fruit, if you don’t live in the tropics, is a topic that could fill another column.) Personally, I’d choose a frost hardy passion flower, jn case the future holds more severe winters.
If you want to prune the vine, do so in spring. If you want to acquire one on the cheap, grow it from seed (preferably from a friend’s plant, so you can see what it will look like when mature) or propagate it from cuttings or by layering it in summer.
All in all, a passion flower vine is a stunning candidate to plant in a Dorchester County garden. Something to consider as the best transplanting season – late fall – fast approaches. In the meantime, happy gardening!
Editor’s note: Ms. Sands is a University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener from Dorchester County. Questions for the column may be sent to bannernews@newszap.com or The Banner, Attn. Gardening Column, 103 Cedar St., Cambridge, MD 21613.

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