Growing passion fruit: It's easy if you can beat the bugs
Passion fruit vines have been threaded on a chain-link fence between the Fountain Avenue Community Garden and the school next door. For about two years, the plant’s growth was lackluster. But once its roots got established, the vine exploded with, well, a passion. Now it’s up in the pine tree over the garden and is spreading around the corner, covering at least 50 feet of chain link.
“We plan to have crawling vines, a wall of green, all around the garden,” gardener Charlene Gawa said. This winter the plant was loaded with fruit, but gardeners couldn’t enjoy the harvest. Schoolkids picked the fruit, usually when it was still green (even though it won't ripen when off the vine).
Considered a pest by some and even banned in some community gardens, passion fruit comes in more than 500 varieties. Originating in Paraguay, Brazil and parts of Argentina, passion fruit is grown throughout the tropics now. Its juice is used in processed drinks, but it’s best enjoyed raw: guava-like flavor, flowery bouquet and custardy texture that creates a jelly-like umami moment that would seem impossible to duplicate. For added effect, chew the crunchy seeds.
“We would just go up into the mountains [of Honduras] and pick them and they were quite sweet,” said Jamie Inashima, staff member and resident bug expert at Sunset Nursery. “We’d crack them open like eggs and suck out the inside.”
She planted one in her backyard but had to tear it out when it started invading her neighbor’s property. Although the flowers were stunning, the fruit was inedible, she said, with what she described as a chemical taste.
For some gardeners the flower’s in-your-face personality is reward enough: 3 inches across with a purple fringe that highlights the architecture of the center, where the prominent female parts are surrounded by the stamen. Missionaries named the plant, whose fruit ripens close to Easter, after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The number of stamen (five), the color of the petals (white), even the whip-like vines were seen as references to the Passion.
As an ornamental screen, passion fruit grows quickly but may get buggy, Inashima said. The leaves of some species are nurseries for butterflies, especially the giant gulf fritillary, easily identified by a near-4-inch wingspan, brilliantly orange. Caterpillars, almost 2 inches long and covered in soft spines, can strip foliage from a vine in a few days. (That's Inashima with one of the caterpillars above.)
At Rosewood Community Garden, master gardener Nery Reyes is also a big fan of passion fruit. He has several plants, including one purple granadilla that almost envelops an arbor. When it dies back, after five years or so, he’ll plant another.
-- Jeff Spurrier
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Photos: Ann Summa