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  • Writer's pictureBethany Plonski

Native Plants: Passionflower

September is here, and it's time to celebrate native plants! Thanks to the combined efforts of Georgia Audubon and Georgia Native Plant Society, September was recently designated as Georgia Native Plants Month.

Before I started photography, I had very little awareness of native plants (or even garden-variety plants). But the more I learn about nature through my photo work, the more I appreciate the beauty and utility of native plants. I'm really excited to know there is now a statewide effort to spread awareness about how they can enrich our landscapes while supporting birds and wildlife.

So, in honor of Georgia Native Plants Month (and in an attempt to get myself back on track with blogging), I'd like to share some of my personal experience introducing native plants into my garden. I'm hoping I'll have time this month to put together a few more posts highlighting some of my favorite plants, and I'd like to start with a new addition to my own garden this year: passionflower (passiflora incarnata).

Purple passion flower
Purple passionflower, a Georgia native

The first time I saw this flower in the wild, I thought I'd stumbled across a rare alien being. It's quite an exotic looking flower, with a striking purple color and wild, threadlike tendrils.

People are often curious about how passionflower gets its name. Sometimes plant names can seem a bit random, but in this case the name originates from similarities between aspects of passionflower's structure and the Christian crucifixion story. As far back as medieval times, people saw parallels between the plant's 10 petals and the 10 faithful disciples, its three stigmas and the three nails, its five stamens and Christ's five wounds, etc.

Passionflower is more than just a beautiful and intriguing flower, though. In fact, one of the main reasons I wanted to plant it in my garden this year is because of its relationship to other organisms. I knew that passionflower was a host plant for gulf fritillary butterflies, and now I know that host plants are just as important for pollinators as the actual flowers they feed on as adults.

Gulf fritillary caterpillar on purple passionflower vine
Look, but don't touch - the gulf fritillary caterpillar's color and spikes warn predators to stay away

By early summer, I started noticing gulf fritillary caterpillars all over the passionflower vines out back. It was really exciting to witness more of the lifecycle for these beautiful creatures, but also a little scary to discover how hungry caterpillars actually are! I was honestly a little worried about how much of the passionflower leaves the caterpillars were consuming until I learned passionflower usually tolerates it and bounces back just fine. At one point, my plants had almost been eaten back to bare vines, but they have been resilient enough to survive multiple waves of caterpillars in the past few months.

Gulf fritillary butterfly
All grown up - my garden is packed with gulf fritillaries this year!

Fritillaries aren't the only creatures that passionflower supports, either. It is also great for ants. I know most people aren't as excited about ants as butterflies, but ants also do important work in the ecosystem. And the relationship between ants and passionflower is really unique and symbiotic. In addition to the nectar in the flower itself, the purple passionflower has extra button-like nectar glands at the base of its leaves. This enables the plant to make nectar all the time (instead of just when it's flowering), and ants love this so much that they will defend the nectar glands from other insects that might damage the passionflower. Another great example of win-win partnerships in nature!

And speaking of win-wins, passionflower is an incredibly easy keeper. That is honestly one of the best things about native plants. You don't have to baby them at all. They have evolved to survive here, so they are very hardy and low-maintenance.

Aside from training the vines around a small wooden trellis when I initially planted them and giving them an occasional trim when they try to encroach on their neighbors, my passionflowers have required virtually no maintenance or watering. It almost feels too easy!

Purple passionflower

So that's a little intro to one of my favorite native plants. Passionflower is available as a cultivar, which means it's fairly easy to find, even in traditional garden centers or nurseries. So whether you want to support pollinators or just bring home a really unique-looking flower, I highly recommend planting one (or more) of these beauties in your own backyard.


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