“What is that?” It’s a common question heard from visitors to the Santa Monica Community Gardens. It could be about a towering stalk of collard greens or an artichoke blooming into what it wants to become; a beautiful purple flower. To non-gardeners, many vegetables are not recognizable outside of the supermarket. In the Main Street gardens, guests are usually commenting on the striking, almost prehistoric-looking flowers of the Passion Fruit vine (passiflora edulis). The flowers are two to three inches wide. The flower has five white petals, and above the petals thin, filament-like strands emanating from the center. They are dark purple towards the middle and white at the tips. At the very center there are five stamen (the male part of the flower containing the pollen).

Passion fruit is native to Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina. It eventually made its way to Australia and Hawaii, where it was grown commercially and used in fruit juice blends. There are two species, the purple passion fruit and the yellow passion fruit. The yellow can grow up to the size of a grapefruit and its exact origin is unknown. There are several varieties of the purple passion fruit; some are Blacknight, Edgehill, Purple Giant, and Kahuna. The leaves of the vine are a deep green, and three lobed. The vine is dense and beautiful, and makes a great privacy screen, but it is most striking when in bloom. It’s a vigorous vine and will reach out its tendrils, competing with other plants and latching on to anything within reach.

In the plant world passion fruit is considered a ‘modified berry’ of the cucurbitaceae family. Squash, gourds and watermelon are also in this family. Passion fruit has a tough outer-rind like citrus (hesperidium family) but without segmented inner fruit. They are sub-tropical plants and need up to thirty-five inches of rainfall per year, so frequent, almost daily watering is necessary, especially in hot weather. If the vine is cut down, it will sprout again from the root. Passion fruit can be grown in containers and does well indoors. It prefers well-drained sandy, loam soil, rich in organic matter. It can be propagated by seed or by cuttings and will produce fruit after about three years.

Several gardeners at the Main Street community gardens have passion fruit vines. Passion fruit is not a staple of the garden, like root vegetables and tomatoes, but it is fun to grow! I purchased mine from the Virginia Park farmer’s market three years ago. I transplanted it twice. After the second replanting it withered and yellowed. It was a sad little stick! I fed it with fish-bone meal fertilizer (a lower nitrogen organic fertilizer) and with time and attention it began to thrive. My passion fruit now creates a beautiful shelter and habitat for monarch butterflies in their caterpillar and chrysalis phase, and casts shade on my raised bed; ideal for planting salad greens.

When the fruits (actually berries) develop from the fertilized flower (bees are the most common pollinators) they are green and the shape of a very small chicken egg. They grow to the size of a goose egg and darken to a deep burgundy- purple. When they fall from the vine, they are ready to be harvested. They can be opened right away, but may be very tart. I wait until the skin is puckered and cut them in half with a serrated knife. The skin is leathery-tough when freshly fallen from the vine but when they’ve sat a bit and puckered, the skin is desiccated and brittle. There is a white pith lining the berry and attached to it many small, membrane like seed sacks. The seeds are black and can be eaten.

I scoop out the golden-orange membrane, seeds, and juices and freeze them in ice cube trays for later use, or until I have as much passion fruit as I need for a recipe. If seeds are bothersome, the pulp can be passed through a fine mesh sieve, squeezing the pulp and juices through with a spoon leaving the seeds behind. The juice can be added to iced tea for an aromatic treat. I like to add the pulp, seeds and all, to Greek yogurt with a touch of raw honey. Passion fruit’s exotic flavor works well in desserts. There are many recipes online to get you started. Experiment, try new things and have fun!