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The Passion Flower of Christ

Were Passiflora caerulea (aka, blue passion flower) a person, it would be immediately arrested for indecent exposure. Look at it: Its three violet stigmas spread-eagle; its five lime green stamens positioned opportunistically behind those feminine parts, with split yellow anthers waiting to release their millions of flower sperm; its electric-blue radial filaments framing the splayed out scene of potential reproductivity like a miniskirt hiked up around a giggling waist. Really, passionflowers – in all their flagrant exhibitionism — don’t leave much to the imagination.

Unless of course, one thinks like a Christian missionary, that oft-repressed group of folks after whom one of our most common coital positions is named. With this in mind, perhaps their interpretation of the passionflower’s reproductive structures should not seem far out in the least: In the 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish Bible thumpers adopted the Passiflora genus to symbolize Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Jesus! Seriously? Perhaps they were taking advantage of the alkaloids found in passionflowers that have reputedly been used to amplify the effects of mind-altering drugs.

But regardless of being yet another example of the human tendency to impose religious allegories upon the natural world, the missionaries’ interpretation is pretty interesting, and provides a good lesson on botany, much less on the crucifixion:

The 3 stigmas (the top of the female structure, often sticky to be receptive to pollen; in P. caerulea the stigmas are magenta-purple): the 3 nails (one for each hand, one for the feet)

can you find the nails? the Holy Grail? the wounds? the crown of thorns and the Apostles?

The ovary and style (the female part below the stigma — the style is the tube connecting the stigma and the ovary, which is inside at the base of the style; in P. caerulea the style is magenta and the ovary is light green): the chalice or Holy Grail of the Last Supper

The 5 anthers (the male part which holds the pollen; in P. caerulea the anthers are bright yellow): the 5 wounds (one in each hand, one in each foot, and one on his side caused by a Roman soldier’s lance

The dozens of radial filaments or corona (an outgrowth of the sepal and petals; in P. caerulea the radial filaments are deep purple at the base, then white, then bright peacock blue at the tips): the crown of thorns

The 5 sepals and 5 petals (the sepals often look like petals — and do in P. caerulea — but are what enclose the bud and then frame the petals; in P. caerulea the petals are white and the sepals are white with a faint greenish edge): the 10 faithful apostles (the original 12 minus Peter the Denier and Judas the Betrayer)

The old leaves: the hands of the persecutors

a different species -- P. mollissima, I think -- but lance-like leaves nevertheless

The new leaves: the point of the lance used to stab Him

now if a problem comes along......

The tendrils: the whips of those who beat Him

And finally, the dominant colors of blue and white representing Heaven and purity, respectively.

Now, for some cultural relativity: In Sanskrit, blue passionflowers are known as “Krishnakamala,” because blue is the color associated with the aura of Krishna. And in Israel and Japan both, passionflowers are dubbed the “clock flower” or “clock plant,” due to their regular and radial shape (and perhaps because the Japanese are reputedly quite anal about being on time, so I could see why they might see a clock as opposed to Christ).

can you say "tick-tock" in Hebrew?

As flippant as I was at the beginning of this post, I realize I just learned more about the story of Jesus that I’d ever known — it seems those Renaissance proselytizers were successful in their mission after all! (And I bet there will be future posts about flowers-as-religious-symbols, considering many of the early Western plant hunters were priests traveling to foreign lands to save the savages.)

And, a couple more Passiflora, since we’re on the subject, both of which are blooming profusely right now in the Chilean Garden at the San Francisco Botanical Garden:

P. mollissima or a related hybrid or cultivar: check out the reduced filaments that look like barnacles

P. parritae, the largest of about 500 different species of passionflowers. This one is thought to be extinct in its native habitat, the mountain forests of Colombia, and is also rare in cultivation. This one at the SFBG is thriving, though.


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2 comments to The Passion Flower of Christ

  • Liz

    Wow! thank you for the interesting and surprising history of passionflower’s name. i am growing some for the first time, 1 looks the same as yours; the other is a larger variety with a pinker flower. i adore their revealing blossoms, and will continue to see them more as sexy flowers than religious symbols ;)

  • sErgio

    Can you eat the fruit

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