Horticulture Supervisor, Kyle Cheesborough
The passionflower is a fascinating genus containing a number of vining species, each displaying a spectacular flower with an interesting history. In the 15th century, Spanish missionaries traveling to the Americas encountered different species of Passiflora, and upon describing the plant, they adopted the unique characteristics of the leaves, stems, and flowers to symbolize the last days of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion. The sharply pointed leaf tips represented the spear that pierced Christ’s side during the crucifixion, while the climbing tendrils are whips used to flog Jesus. The ten petals denote the apostles, with Peter the denier and Judas the betrayer excluded. The stigmas symbolize the nails used to crucify Christ, while the anthers represent the five wounds Jesus received from the nails and the spear. The many filaments that radiate around the flower signify the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head.
Passionflower ranges from South America into central and southern United States and is often referred to as ‘maypop’ in the U.S., due to the popping sound produced by the hollow fruit. At Bellefontaine Cemetery, two species native to Missouri persist in our butterfly garden: the purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and the yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea). The purple passionflower is an aggressive vine, using its tendrils to twist and turn around fences, trellises, shrubs, and small trees. Though purple passionflower may prefer moist, well-drained, sandy soils, it will tolerate our clay soils in the St. Louis area, and can withstand drought. In many cases, Passiflora incarnata can be a nuisance, sending runners that pop up in unwanted places in the garden. Beautiful, purple-and-white, 2-3” diameter flowers appear in July and persist into early September, giving way to egg-shaped, yellowish fruit in fall that can be eaten fresh.
The closely related yellow passionflower is less aggressive, and features flowers that are much less showy than the purple passionflower. The leaves of Passiflora lutea are not as deeply lobed as incarnata, and are smooth at the tips, with some silvery mottling on the leaf surface. Yellow passionflower requires small limbs or wire to grab onto, and will quickly cover a suitable site with dense foliage. The small, ½” flowers are greenish-yellow, and more often than not are difficult to find as they tuck themselves beneath the thick canopy of leaves. Look for the flowers beginning in July, and seek out the small, bluish-black berries in the fall. Both passion vines should be grown in full sun, and both are larval host plants for Gulf Fritillary butterflies and the rarely seen Julia Heliconian butterfly.
Another native species flowering in the Cemetery’s butterfly garden is blue vervain (Verbena hastata). A tall, herbaceous plant to four feet, blue vervain features numerous flower spikes – some nearly a foot long – that begin in mid-summer into early fall. Verbena hastata belongs to a genus of plants once thought to be a cure-all (the genus ‘Verbena’ is Latin for ‘Sacred Plant), and indeed the blue vervain is used to treat headaches, cramps, coughs, and fevers. Blue vervain is best suited to moist areas in full sun, where it will colonize by spreading rhizomes (a modified underground stem that will produce roots and shoots). Bumble bees adore Verbena hastata, as well as the verbena bee, which visits only those flowers in the genus Verbena. Blue vervain is a host plant for the Verbena Moth, Verbena Bud Moth, and the Common Buckeye butterfly. As an added bonus, deer typically avoid this plant due to the bitter taste in the leaves.
compiled by Cara L. Crocker