Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Passion flower

What is the first think you think of when someone mentions passion? Perhaps romantic love? Physical or sexual attraction for someone, or maybe just sex? Do you think of the same meaning of passion when the subject is the passion vine? What is the origin of this plant’s name? Is the passion fruit an exotic aphrodisiac? Well, not exactly but maybe if you’re in the right mood anything can work as an aphrodisiac...

Passiflora (Passifloraceae), the genus of the passion vine, gained this name due to the great imagination and devotion of the Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits which associated most morphological characters of the plant to symbols of the Passion of Christ. While exploring the exotic tropical rainforests of South-America they were astonished not only by the beauty and diversity of the plant (Northern-Central Brazil is an important hotspot of diversity for these plants) but also with all the symbolism that they immediately attributed to the plant. For the Jesuits, the flower of the passion vine had all the symbols of the Passion of Christ, and so it was named after this passion, not any other romantic or sensual passion that people might probably think of – after all it is indeed an exotic and extremely sweet fruit.

Flower diversity in Passiflora sp.

So now you are curious about the symbols, and the Jesuits were indeed very attentive – they looked at all the flower organs finding explanations for numbers and shapes of most of them. Let’s see…

The flower is pentamerous, with 5 sepals and 5 petals, representing the 10 faithful apostles (excluding Peter, the denier and Judas, the betrayer); the corona represents the crown of thorns with which roman soldiers crowned him as the “King of the Jews”; the ovary, a chalice shaped structure, represents the Holy Grail; the 3 stigmas represent the 3 nails used in Christ’s crucifixion and the 5 anthers the 5 wounds (1 in each hand and foot and the last one in his chest caused by the Holy Lance). But not only the floral structures were considered to be the symbols of the Passion of Christ. The characteristic leaves with pointed tips resemble the Holy Lance that confirmed Christ’s death and the tendrils represent the whips during the flagellation. The colours have also been attributed a meaning, since many species are white and blue colors, representing heaven and purity, and we must not forget the purple, which was also the colour of the robe that romans covered Jesus after crowning him.

The association between the flower and symbols of the Passion of Christ

Apart of all the symbolism involving the plant, there are also interesting characters related with the ecology of the plant that I would like to share with you. Every single part of it is edible, meaning that this plant is the herbivore heaven! They can eat the leaves, tendrils, flowers and there is plenty of nectar in the floral and extra-floral nectaries. To avoid getting eaten by all the herbivores, Passiflora seem to have made a deal with the ants by feeding them with nectar from extra-floral nectaries (usually present in bracts but also in leaves). Likewise, the ants protect their plant from herbivores and nectar robbers. Also the ants allow true pollinators to access the floral nectaries, allowing the successful reproduction of the plant. It sounds beautiful, but it is not as simple as it might sound – it relates many ant species, so a lot of different behaviours with different Passiflora species and environments. In any case, Passiflora and ants seem to get along very well and it seems to be a fair symbiotic relationship.

Ants feeding on nectar from extra-floral nectaries of the bracts of Passiflora

After attributing so many symbols to this plant, I wonder what Jesuits thought noticing so many ants around the vines getting rid of the hungry predators, protecting their “holy” source in exchange of precious nectar. I will let you meditate on this, wishing you a blessed Thursday of Corpus Christi.


  1. very nice article, didn't knew the story behind it! it's amazing how people tend to find ways to link objects and stories.. but the funiest part is that the similarities are there.. so does it mean anything or a simple coincidence?

  2. I guess it is up to us to decide if it is just a coincidence or more than that - it is where mystery lies on. We can think scientifically or a little bit more spiritually, thinking that things do actually have that meaning for a reason, but the truth is that we will never know. Maybe the Jesuits were right, maybe they only had a great devotion and imagination - we will never know but it only depends in your beliefs.
    In any case I think destroying the mysticism around it is like killing a story which is part of History already

  3. I can't imagine a weirder looking bloom than the passiflora's. There's this myth among kids that if they give a girl to eat passion fruit they will fall for the giver. Then I explained my nephew the truth behind the "passion" and he was like "oh, ok." haha

  4. As important as all these meanings of the lotus flower is that it also stands for "non-attachment". This is symbolized by the lotus flower's peculiar characteristic to emerge from the murk and the dirt of its birth place untouched and unaffected, as clean, pure and unblemished as if it came from under crystal clear waters.Lotus flower meaning