One of my favorite outdoor activities is foraging the fields and woods for Nature's herbs and edibles. My mom was the first to introduce me to the wild foods Nature has to offer, and I am so glad she did. One of my childhood favorites was the tiny little blackberries growing wild around our home. They made the best tasting jelly!
And now decades later, I'm still hunting the tall grasses and woods to find new surprises to enjoy. One of my recent favorites has been the passionflower, both for its delicately sweet fruits and its highly useful ability to aide a good night's sleep.
Better known by many as a "maypop," these gorgeous vines aren't hard to find. Just grab your hiking boots and scout pastures, overgrown ditches, roadsides, even untended yards (with permission, of course). The long, non-woody, perennial vines may be spotted clinging to fences, posts, old barns, even small trees and bushes.
One of my best passionflower spots tends to be in tall grass at the end of our property. Some years I find it wrapping its tendrils around the tall fescue, other years it sprawls along the ground, weaving itself amongst the clumps of grass. You really never know just where maypops will "pop" up. But once you find some, be sure to mark them so you can find them throughout the season.
Once you have your secret stash, keep an eye on it. Beautiful, frilly white and purple flowers begin to appear around June and continue through September in most regions. Each pollinated flower's ovaries quickly develop into egg-shaped, green fruits around 2" long, dangling from the vine like lanterns. Over time, the fruits change from dark, tree frog green to a lighter green, at times maturing into yellow or orange.
Fruits are edible after turning light green. However, if the fruits change to yellow or orange, the flavor will be more intense and much sweeter. Many say it's best to wait until the skins are wrinkled and fruits fall easily from the vine.
But, if you can't wait that long or fear the woodland creatures may beat you to the fruit, go ahead and grab one to see if you like it. If not, you know to wait a little longer for the rest. That's part of the adventure of discovering a new native fruit to enjoy.
Eating the fruit is much like eating a pomegranate. Slice the fruit in half to expose the seed cavity. When ripe, each seed will be enclosed in a jelly-like substance. Pop seeds into your mouth and suck the jelly off for an instant treat, spitting the seeds out or eating them for a slightly different flavor.
Once your belly is full, gather up the rest and head home to make a passionflower infused simple syrup to add to tea, ice cream, sorbets, whipped cream and frostings. You may even make jelly with the juice.
After you've had a taste, you may decide you'd rather have a group of vines in your own yard to make harvesting easier. Growing passionflowers couldn't be simpler, as they thrive in almost any acidic or slightly alkaline soil that's sandy, loamy, or clayey — although they do best in fertile soils.
The biggest requirement is full sun for at least half the day for good fruit production and a well-drained location. Once established, they tolerate drought conditions fairly well.
To obtain starter plants, locate nursery stock for a quick start. Better yet, seek out a neighbor with an established plant and take cuttings or divisions. Six to eight inch cuttings may be taken in early spring. Remove lower leaves and dip in rooting hormone for best results. Then, place cuttings in rooting medium and keep moist until roots develop.
Divisions are easily obtained by removing suckers that develop along the root system. Take a shovel and dig around each sucker, making sure to get as many roots as possible. Retain as much soil around the division's roots as you can, which significantly reduces transplant shock.
One final way of getting starts is the old-fashioned way. As long as the fruit is a bit wrinkly and no white shows on the seeds, suck the juice off and spit the seeds out. Plant them in the ground in the fall. Even easier, dig a small hole and plant the entire fruit in the ground, letting nature do its work. Mark the spot, and wait until spring.
Purple passionflower is just one of many native plants (in most regions, anyway) that's more than happy to grace our gardens and tempt our palettes. It's ease of growth virtually guarantees a successful harvest from year to year.
And even if you don't care to eat them, bees, butterflies and more will thank you for letting them hang around. Or, you can do as I do and dry the vines, leaves and flowers and turn the dried herb into a tincture for a sleep aide. It works wonders.
You can find more from Kristi by visiting her website: http://www.tenderheartshomestead.com.
Photos property of Kristi Cook.